I've been studying and working on the Internet in developing nations since 1991 when only a few nations had any sort of Internet connection, as shown in Larry Landweber's 1991 connectivity map:
Every nation is connected today, but the digital divide remains as deep as it was in 1991. Both Facebook and Google are working to bring the 3-4 billion people who do not have Internet connectivity online and they described their efforts at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps at Google Inc., updated the audience on two projects -- Project Loon and Project Link.
Project Loon seeks to deploy a constellation of balloons at an altitude of around 20 kilometers -- above the mountains, air traffic and weather.
The balloons will be airborne routers able to communicate with end users, each other and Internet back-haul locations.
Pinchai said the balloons now average more than six months in the air and keep nearby smartphones operating at 4G or LTE speeds, around 10 megabits per second. “We are well on our way to a platform that, by the end of the decade, will touch 4 to 5 billion people.”
He also gave a progress report on Project Link in Kampala, Uganda where they have installed over 800km of fiber, creating an urban backbone.
As is often the case with municipal networks (as in Stockholm), Google is not a retail Internet service provider, but provides wholesale connectivity to retailers. Pichai said they would be expanding Project Link -- installing fiber backbones "many more" African cities this year.
For more on the Kampala deployment and a thoughtful analysis of the reason for its success, see this post by Steve Song.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about Internet.org, which hopes to make basic internet services affordable, so everyone with a phone can join the knowledge economy.
While Google is working on long range projects (including an investment in Elon Musk's SpaceX project to provide Internet service using low-earth orbit satellites), Internet.org is already up and running in Ghana, Columia, Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia and India.
Facebook and their Internet.org partners are focusing on improving traditional terrestrial cell phone technology by improving mobile infrastructure, mass producing cheap, powerful cell phones and caching and compressing data. Their partners reflect this orientation – phone manufacturers, Opera, a Web software company, and Mediatek, a fabless semiconductor company.
Note that they want to provide only “basic Internet services,” not access to the open Internet. For example, in India they offer access to Facebook and 37 other web sites.
Facebook also has a Connectivity Lab lab working on more exotic, long-range solutions.
Short videos on Project Loon and Internet.org
Mark Zuckerberg spoke at a business conference being held in conjunction with the Summit of the Americas in Panama City yesterday. He announced that Internet.org would be available in Panama and stated that eventually expanding into Cuba “definitely fits within our mission.” (Recall that Internet.org provides “basic Internet services" -- access to leading Web sites -- not access to the open Internet).