Five ideas to bring the world’s next four billion people online. Which will win?

A group of primary school children in Zimbabwe use a computer for classroom learning.

As we work for progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I believe that there is one intervention that will enable progress on all 17 goals: harnessing the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for social good.

Internet, mobile and telecommunication networks have the power to connect people to health care, education and have great potential to accelerate human progress. Yet, the question remains: How can we ensure that everyone – regardless of gender, geography, or income – can participate equally in the digital world?

In an attempt to keep the Internet open and inclusive, Mozilla has launched a global challenge to tackle digital inclusion. Mozilla issued their annual Equal Rating Innovation Challenge to entrepreneurs and innovators asking: How can we encourage affordable solutions to bring the next four billion people online?

On 9 March, in New York City, five semi-finalists participated in a Demo Day at the Equal Rating Conference, which is a chance to pitch their idea to a panel of judges and compete for the top prize. Mozilla has put forward prize money totaling $250,000 to build the strongest solutions for digital inclusion. These five ideas are now being put to the public and community voting is open until 16 March.

I had the great opportunity to take part in the Equal Rating Conference to learn more about the solutions being proposed. Among the five finalists, there was an overwhelming sense of their drive and passion for innovative solutions to benefit humanity.

Here are the five amazing people and projects at this year’s Equal Rating Conference Demo Day:

  • Bruno Vianna from Brazil presented Free Networks P2P Cooperative, a project that enables communities to set-up networks to get access to the Internet. The Coop supports itself through fees, while co-creating knowledge and respecting the local cultures.
  • Steve Song from Canada presented Freemium Mobile Internet (FMI), a new business model for telecommunication companies to provide free 2G to enable all the benefits of the open web to all.
  • Dr Sarbani Banerjee Belur from India presented Gram Marg Solution for Rural Broadband, an open source low-cost hardware prototype utilizing Television White Spectrum to provide affordable access to rural communities.
  • Tim Genders from South Africa presented Afri-Fi: Free Public WiFi, a model to make Project Isizwe financially sustainable by connecting brands to an untapped, national audience, specifically low-income communities who otherwise cannot afford connectivity.
  • Carlos Rey-Moreno from South Africa previewed, Zenzeleni “Do it for yourselves” Networks (ZN), a model for bottom-up telecommunications co-operatives that allows the most disadvantaged rural areas of South Africa to self-provide affordable communications at a fraction of the cost offered by other operators.

All of the proposed solutions can make real differences to the communities they serve. Not only do they take into consideration the limits and barriers of the technologies, but also the social, cultural and economic barriers that may hinder the adoption of their solutions.

Some of the technological barriers include the need to have low-power consumption; building for robust offline experience keeping in mind users may have spotty coverage; and taking into account the need for dual SIMs. The human barriers to overcome included digital literacy and the fear and lack of understanding of technology; the affordability of devices or services; the lack of relevant local content and information and others. I encourage all of you to learn more about these solutions and vote for your favourite technological solutions.

As we progress towards the achievement of the SDGs, I also encourage all stakeholders to continue to put technology to use for social good. As there are 169 SDG targets, I would say there are at least 169 opportunities to do good!

For more information, you can download my presentation here: Mozilla_EqualRating_Gary_Fowlie

By: Gary Fowlie

Gary Fowlie (@Sask2NY) is the Head of the ITU Liaison Office to the United Nations in New York, where he actively promotes ICTs as a tool of empowerment and development. 

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