Bringing Internet To The Far Corners Of The Earth : All Tech Considered About 5 billion people are mostly or entirely disconnected from the Internet. So to capitalize on this opportunity, Google and Facebook have begun high-profile campaigns to connect the unconnected.
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Bringing Internet To The Far Corners Of The Earth

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Bringing Internet To The Far Corners Of The Earth

Bringing Internet To The Far Corners Of The Earth

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: Of the seven billion people on Earth, about two billion have smartphones with decent Internet connections. The rest are either entirely offline or aren't reliably connected. In that group, five billion people present a big opportunity for Silicon Valley. Google and Facebook are on high-profile campaigns to connect the unconnected. They're betting they can make billions of dollars getting people without electricity or running water to pay for the Internet. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: You could call the Google approach inspiring - or bizarre.

PAMELA DESROCHERS: So I'm a balloonatic, and that's a self-coined term.

SHAHANI: Meet Pamela Desrochers.

DESROCHERS: We believe that balloons are going to be the way of the future and we're going to bring Internet to everyone.

SHAHANI: To expand the Internet globally, Google is building balloons - hot-air balloons. Only instead of carrying people, they carry wireless routers.

DESROCHERS: So I have a balloon here that we tested last week.

SHAHANI: Desrochers is pulling reams of fabric out of a big, black garbage bag. She used to be a fashion designer. Now she's doing balloon CSI.

DESROCHERS: We will hunt and peck through 60,000 square feet to find the tiniest little imperfection.

SHAHANI: The balloons fly up about twice as high as a plane and have to withstand temperatures as low as -120 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 80. To help spread the air evenly inside, the designers created the gas pathways using bubble wrap.

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DESROCHERS: I know, it's really fun.

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SHAHANI: Project Loon, as it's called, was top secret when it started in 2011. Bit by bit, the mad scientists at Google's X laboratories started going public - not with all the details. During NPR's visit, we accidentally discovered that at any given moment, two dozen balloons were in the air, navigating traffic and testing.

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SHAHANI: Over at another lab, engineer Christopher Schuster shows me a cube about 2-by-2-by-2 feet, wrapped in foil.

Is this the part that sprinkles the Internet everywhere?

CHRISTOPHER SCHUSTER: Yes, this is where the Internet comes from.

SHAHANI: It looks like a 10-year-old's home science project, but apparently its signal can cover an area the size of Rhode Island with a connection strong enough for YouTube videos.

SCHUSTER: Now instead of the cellphone tower being up on a hill, it's on a balloon that's floating in the stratosphere.

SHAHANI: Only a handful of people on Earth have tested project balloon. Silvana Pereira is one of them.

SILVANA PEREIRA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: She's the principal of a small school in Agua Fria, a rural village in Brazil. Her students are poor - no running water at home, sometimes no electricity, definitely no Internet, though some teenagers share a smartphone with their parents and gather around this one tree on a little hill where they can kind of get a signal.

PEREIRA: (Through interpreter) The cell tower with signals is very distant from Agua Fria, so they have to walk around to connect. It happens to be stronger at that tree. They go there in the end of the afternoons and weekends.

SHAHANI: Last year, Project Loon launched a balloon in Brazil. By 7:48 a.m., she says, it flew overhead. She and her kids - grade schoolers - were in a classroom, eyes fixed on a laptop. They knew they were connected when the Google homepage loaded. Principal Pereira chokes up talking about it.

PEREIRA: (Through interpreter) Something that seems so impossible suddenly happened. We had the sensation - me and the students - that we were not isolated from the world. We could see maps. We toured a museum online that they could never reach in person. It was a magical moment.

SHAHANI: According to the World Bank and global nonprofits, the Internet is like electricity - a must-have for anyone trying to make it today. The CEO of Facebook agrees.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: We've launched in six countries - four in Africa, in Colombia and just a couple of weeks ago in India.

SHAHANI: Mark Zuckerberg recently on stage at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

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ZUCKERBERG: And that basically serves as an on-ramp so that people can learn why they would want to pay for data.

SHAHANI: A year ago at this same event, Zuckerberg said expanding the Internet was a mission and his board shouldn't expect to profit anytime soon. He said Facebook would invest billions of dollars and replace old technologies with new, cheaper ones. Now, sources close to the company say, he's pulling back.

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ZUCKERBERG: Building all the infrastructure that needs to get built to connect everyone costs a lot of money.

SHAHANI: Zuckerberg is brokering deals with the old guard, the mobile operators. They give the unconnected free access to Facebook and a few other apps with the expectation that users get hooked and then pay to keep using.

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ZUCKERBERG: It works. It grows the Internet. It grows the businesses for partners.

SHAHANI: It might sound strange, but Google and Facebook are both betting it's a multibillion-dollar business, though neither one says it's close to pulling it off. Facebook is drafting contracts. Google is surfing winds. And it'll take leaps in deal-making and engineering to reach the far corners of the earth. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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