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Zero cost internet for Malawi

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I wrote previously about Facebook’s free internet service via Internet.org, and am pleased to see it alive and kicking in Malawi. I know that it works as my Airtel smartphone warns me that I am switching from a free to a metered service when referencing Facebook.

Zuckerberg calls online connectivity a “human right” and joins other enlightened countries who have classified internet services as an essential service – similar to water and power. I believe this has also motivated African countries such as Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa to start rolling out free internet services to their population.

The benefits to the people and the country’s economy cannot be overstated. Think of the impact on education, the dissemination of medical advice and information, and of course – access to new and global data.

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So – is zero cost internet a possibility in Malawi? Perhaps the business model outlined below can make this work. Infrastructure cannot be built without investment, and networks cannot be operated and managed at zero cost. So how can we as a country, make this happen?

The first step is key political commitment to the project. Without this, very few investors will commit their resources. Assuming we have this, and with the advent of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) beaming down to DSTV dish type satellite terminals – building a large scale rapid deployment broadband solution over large geographical areas, becomes a more cost effective solution – with no towers or other infrastructure required.

Now that we have the infrastructure, how do we make this a zero cost service for users? Identifying what are called “anchor services” is the answer. Many facilities such as hotels or coffee shops in developed countries bundle the costs of this service together with the sale of their products. This is usually location dependent.

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But, for example, how about educational institutes bundling their bandwidth with their fees? Pension funds administrators or medical insurance service providers could bundle – for example – 10GB as a value add service to their members. Sports or gym clubs could do likewise. Wherever people gather, the option to maximise on this service is available.

How about the bank branches in Malawi, retail shops or petrol stations (who are currently looking to bundle food franchises, supermarkets and utility payment facilities within their premises) – probably providing the most distributed network throughout the country?

Not only will this increase market share, but also provide a socially responsible service in the rural areas. The important point is to identify and target socially conscious domestic providers who buy in to the idea that internet services is an essential service for all.

Managing this does not require a complex billing system. Domestic service providers that provide an unique number to each client – e.g.: bank account medical insurance scheme or pension number – will be able to provide a lower cost solution to bandwidth management. Of course, this also enables the potential for any of these service providers (assuming communications legislation allows) to maximise revenue by selling bandwidth as simply as one currently buys mobile phone credit.

Paul English, the cofounder of travel search engine Kayak.com, wants to blanket all of Africa with free and low-cost Wi-Fi. “Having email and Skype has been transformative for the handful of villages I’ve worked in,” he says.

He cites the example of a doctor who, unable to diagnose a patient’s rash, was able to take a photograph of it, email it to a doctor in Boston, and then communicate online to find a cure, It turned out that the mystery rash needed immediate treatment.

The benefits to all citizens are endless – the internet should evolve from being a luxury service to a service for all. As one of the poorest countries in the world – this needs to be urgently explored as a means of raising ourselves as a nation and people.

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