Google has "Fiber"; Facebook has "Internet.org." Now, with Amazon's announcement that it too, will join in the effort to provide Internet service to the unwired masses, the question becomes: will it be tech corporations, not governments, to ultimately close the digital divide?
The online retailer has started testing its own wireless network, unnamed sources have told Bloomberg's Olga Kharif & Danielle Kucera. Amazon is reportedly working with the satellite communications company Globalstar for a broadband spectrum — the frequency on which the Internet runs — that can accommodate more traffic on faster speeds than existent networks. It sounds like Amazon wants to control a wireless Internet network on which tablets and phones could run — a competitor to data plans that telecoms like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint offer. At least that's what GigaOm's Kevin Fitchard, who first reported on the possible partnership, thinks it is. Bloomberg's sources did not detail how or when or where Amazon would implement this program, nor how much it might cost. But, its the latest sign of a private company looking to provide Internet service to those in need.
Despite a slew of Internet providers, there's a large, untapped market of customers for networks both in and outside the U.S. Although Facebook's Internet.org project has decided to focus on all 4 billion of the world's people, even inside the very privileged U.S. 20 percent of Americans still don't use the Internet, leaving "tens of millions of people are still on the sidelines of the digital revolution," according to The New York Times's Edward Wyatt.
Google has already starting moving into underserved U.S. markets with Fiber, a high speed Internet service that launched in Kansas in July 2012. For $70 a month, Fiber provides a modem along with extremely fast service. (It also has a free broadband option.) Fiber, however, currently exists in only two cities, and, as explained in this post, might find expansion difficult because of various regularions.
Reports suggest that Amazon is less interested in providing home internet service than mobile connectivity, thanks to the increasing numbers of people who are choosing phones and tablets over computers. (Facebook also knows this, and has responded with its Facebook for Every Phone program, which equips non-smartphones with Internet access via a Facebook app for people in developing countries.)
Internet for everyone is an undeniably good thing. But, it's important to consider what happens when large, powerful corporations provide that access. These are companies with interests, after all, and Facebook, Google, and Amazon all need more customers and desire more control. "In the short term, I think it's good news for the people of Olathe (Kansas) that will have radically improved access to the Internet," Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, told Vice's Brian Merchant with respect to Google Fiber. "But Google doesn't have to answer to the community any more than Time Warner Cable does. This is a problem in the long term," he added, suggesting that Google can raise prices and provide poor customer service — just like Time Warner Cable does.
There are also significant consequences to handing over the wires to a company with other interests. Google, for example, makes its users buy a Google box, which then runs on Google's cables, and requires people to use Google services. For some, that may not be a big deal. But given the recent NSA domestic spying revelations and Google's general policy of scanning all your emails to deliver targeted ads, some might not want Google controlling - or owning — all or most of the moving parts of their digital lives.
Facebook, for its part, is offering pick up the tab on Internet for the entire unconnected world, but only in exchange for users' online identities — at least that's how the most cynical see the company's new venture. From the Verge's Ben Popper: "Facebook wants to ensure its model of the web, in which your identity is leveraged to target advertising, is the paradigm powering internet access." And Amazon wants to control the Internet on which you power its Kindle Fires and (rumored) smartphones.
There are other options, of course. Christopher Mitchell of TCI is in favor of community owned networks. There's also the government. But that doesn't always go so well either: The U.S. government has allotted $4 billion to its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, much of which has not been used for one reason or another, according to the Times's Wyatt:
In Illinois, for example, a $12 million broadband grant was sanctioned when a subcontractor was caught routing fiber optic cable through neighborhoods where its project engineers lived. A $39 million grant in Arizona was suspended over questionable expenditures on travel, transactions that appeared to involve conflicts of interest and other unbudgeted activities.
Broadband grants in Alabama and Louisiana, totaling $140 million, were terminated over undocumented expenditures and failure to adhere to construction plans and schedules. Four other grants, worth $42 million, returned the money before even getting off the ground.