Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

How Will Technology Serve the Next Billion?

Between standard population growth and the proliferation of digital technologies around the world, Internet traffic will double by 2016—a topic discussed at length at this year’s New York Next Billion conference hosted by Quartz. Much of that traffic is expected to come from developing countries. Here’s a look at two innovations ready to overcome some challenges to bringing—and keeping—the next billion people online.

Nearly three billion people currently live outside of the reach of an Internet connection. They don’t have iPhones, Android devices, or even “dumb”/feature phones, excluding them from access to many of the basic tenets of 21st century communications which we all take for granted (think: TED Talks, health information, directions, weather reports, etc.). Sixty-three percent of this population are not online because they live in areas too remote for a data connection. For mobile network operators, it doesn’t make business sense to extend expensive towers and infrastructure to these rural areas—the demand isn’t concentrated enough to reap a profit or even recover the cost. Enter the innovators of Google[x].

Mike Cassidy, vice president at Google[x], gave us an overview of Project Loon, which uses equipment similar to weather balloons to extend a high-speed mobile signal from an earth-bound tower across many miles. The solar-powered balloons are launched into the stratosphere, taking advantage of the stratospheric winds that circle the globe to cluster and steer, providing a signal to the Earth below. The overhead connection overcomes the challenges of varying geographic terrain—like mountains, which block traditional mobile signals today—making the connection both more inclusive and more resilient against disruptions.

Project Loon partners with mobile network operators who are happy to receive the increased traffic and utilization of their services, plus it opens up data connections to the previously underserved—a win-win. Moreover, by reducing the cost of network infrastructure, the balloons are anticipated to bring new populations online at a lower price. This could translate to increased access to educational content or market information, improving countless lives in developing countries.

As more Internet-enabled devices proliferate on the ground, how do we keep them charged when so many lack access to electricity? The Biolite Stove seeks to support the next billion at home with a cleaner-burning, electricity-generating camp stove.

If you have ever dodged the smoke of a campfire, you’ve experienced the choking billows that they can create. Now picture yourself hovering around that fire every day, cooking all of your meals. Not only is it an inefficient use of resources, it’s also toxic to continuously breathe. The Biolite team created a mechanism to make the fire ultra-efficient, requiring less wood and creating a flame that does not exude toxic fumes. Harnessing energy from the heat of the stove, the Biolite also serves as a charger for mobile devices or LED lamps, making them ideal for hikers and backpackers, and those living in remote places with little-to-no access to electricity.

Project Loon will connect populations living in Internet dead zones and Biolite will provide the electricity necessary to keep their devices charged up. These are only two of the many innovative projects and ideas featured at Quartz’s Next Billion conference, but they highlighted how businesses can benefit the world’s poor or vulnerable, while still advancing their bottom line. As we welcome more users into the digital age, it’s exciting to think about what innovations they may bring to the benefit of the poor or vulnerable around the world.

Leave a comment