During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy one of the common memes/themes going around the internet was the mocking of images of groups of New Yorkers huddled around daisy-chained power cords charging their mobile phones. It seemed an absurd image to some Westerners because it's so easy to access reliable electricity infrastructure on an on-demand basis that we've taken for granted how important and amazing such freedom is for our daily lives.
This video is a great example of both how those photos post-Hurricane Sandy is a daily reality for Kenyan rural society these days, and how important mobile internet access is for even poorer Kenyan shepherds to live their lives. For those who question why the UN has stated that access to high-speed internet is a human right, this video perfectly illustrates the transformative impact high-speed internet access -- increasingly mobile high-speed internet access -- is having around the globe.
Being able to access their internet banking system through mobile technology is as important a societal infrastructure for these shepherds as turning on the tap is for us. When we talk about things such as development aid, we can't think in terms of 19th & 20th century thinking anymore, believing that developing countries must build things such as key infrastructure in the same fashion/progression that we have in the Western world (e.g. a widespread network of land line infrastructure.) Developing nations are progressing with us, at the same time as us. And while they may lack similar infrastructure to what we have, they are just as likely to use modern technological innovations in their own ways to solve their own pressing needs.
So to return to the video, the addition of a relatively simple piece of sustainable technology -- a solar cell and battery set up -- allows a rural shepherd AND the surrounding community for kilometres around him to access the benefits of a reliable electric infrastructure. He gains a new income (charging others to recharge their mobiles) and also allows both his and other children to enhance their education with reliable light at night to do their studies. All this from a simple solar set up that's not terribly different from those you'd likely find in your camping equipment section of your local outdoors store.
It's simple, it's cheap, it’s sustainable, it’s practical and it’s driven by local needs. That formula basically describes the nexus of a great development aid project. By literally empowering these rural Kenyan shepherds to give them the reliable access to the mobile banking that is increasingly forming the basis of their economic system, these shepherds are able to expand their businesses (e.g. the shepherd charging neighbours to charge their phones) and ensure the next generation has access to the education that will allow them to pursue greater opportunities going forward.
Yes, mobile internet allows us to keep up with the latest kitten-themed meme and rant about the latest article about injustice that we didn’t bother reading, but it’s also changing the world in ways that we can’t anticipate. Entire populations of the planet that even a decade ago would never have expected to need a smartphone now rely on them as their only access to the internet that increasingly provides the infrastructure they rely on to access their finances, services, public transit, broad communications and any number of services and supports that are emerging every day. (Even in the United States, a recent PEWResearch Centre Internet, Science & Tech study found the number of adults who owned a smartphone jumped from 35% to 64% in the last decade.)
Our ability to support the effective delivery and maintenance of this infrastructure is increasingly central to both our lives and the lives of quite literally billions of people around the globe. Recognizing this, major technology companies are already working on projects to provide high-speed mobile internet access to remote locations (e.g. Facebook’s high-altitude UAV drone transmitters, Google’s Project Loon high-altitude balloons). Yet as welcome as such efforts are, ethical questions do need to be asked as to whether it should be the sole responsibility of these companies to provide such services and what does it mean to have a private company functioning effectively as a gatekeeper for access to a mobile internet infrastructure that is increasingly central to people’s lives. Additionally, such projects do not address the real question of whether we as societies should be leaving it solely for private corporations alone to build and operate mobile internet infrastructures in urban areas.
Cities have already experimented with offering mobile internet services with varying success, but that doesn’t change the fact that our communities will continue to rely on this technology in increasing levels going forward (until we discover another technology to supplant it.) As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, ensuring access to the mobile internet is moving from a ‘nice to have’ to an ‘absolutely necessary’ for more and more of the world. The sooner we recognize this and come to view access to the mobile internet as a critical infrastructure need for both the Developed and Developing World in all situations (including post-disaster), the better positioned we will be to maintain our critical infrastructure in all situations. Access to mobile internet is no longer about kids checking their Instagram accounts. Access to mobile internet is a social justice and equity issue, and one that matters to current and future generations world wide.