By Garrett C. Hill, CEO, X2nSat, Inc.
Imagine a time when you couldn’t just push a button to hear a friend’s or colleague’s voice on the other end of a simple hand-held device. A time when you couldn’t type up a message and have it received and read within milliseconds. This instant access to other humans is something most of us, including myself, take for granted. But on a recent business trip to meet with an important client in Alaska, I was reminded that this access is not ubiquitous.
On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell spoke some pretty inauspicious words to his assistant Thomas Watson, now a famous part of telecommunications history: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
Today, Bell would be able to both hear and literally see his pal Watson from across the ocean on his laptop computer. In the book “Bell” by Robert V. Bruce, a British reporter who knew Bell speculated that some day “while two persons, hundreds of miles apart, are talking together, they will actually see each other.” … Google Hangouts were predicted in 1878!
The excitement of that first telephone moment mirrors the meaning behind the first email sent (1971), the first domain ever registered (1985), and many other Internet firsts, including the one by Ted Leonsis, who sent his wife the first, and admittedly adorable, AOL Instant Message in 1993: “Don’t be scared … it is me. Love you and miss you.”
Fast-forward to our current challenges in telecommunications. If you grew up in the 1990s, you’ll likely never forget that fingernails-on-a-chalkboard screech of the AOL dial-up sound as your computer jumped into your telephone line to connect you to the World Wide Web and, if you were lucky that day, inform you loudly that “you’ve got mail.”
We’ve come a long way from that infamous AOL slowness and sound, but, even so, not every corner of the planet is connected. I know – it’s an unthinkable state of affairs to those of us used to stopping at a random Starbucks to work on an urgent client project, or pulling over to the side of the road to check email on our smart phones. “First-world problems,” as they say. But there are still remote, rural areas of the United States that endure the frustrating inconsistency of a slow-speed Internet connection.
And, believe it or not, some remote, rural areas of the U.S. in which telephone, TV or Internet access aren’t available at all. Not everyone can tweet, post or chat on a whim. “Disparities in Internet connectivity rates continue to persist across the country, particularly for populations with varying ethnic groups and income levels,” according a recent article in to Governing Magazine. This same article notes that 23% of Alaskans have no Internet connection at all, with even higher percentages in Southern U.S. states.
Why does this matter to me? Well, it’s the heart of everything we do here at X2nSat, albeit often on larger, B2B scale, at least in terms of the delivery system we provide. We don’t offer direct-to-consumer usage plans. But I believe that there are both business and altruistic reasons for pursuing communications solutions in these remote areas that have been forgotten by the satellite market.
My colleagues at Eutelsat aside, there has been minimal investment by most legacy satellite providers in rural areas such as Alaska, North Africa, First Nation fishing villages, and other remote locations. These locations only have buying power if they combine their needs in a co-op fashion. If we all race to get money out of the same downtown, metropolitan areas, then we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and, not to sound too grandiose – to the world. We have this ability to provide satellite capabilities and services other entities simply can’t provide and we don’t embrace it. It’s more than just adding a fourth choice to connectivity options; there’s a more holistic view to the situation.
My business argument goes something like this: People typically choose to live in rural, remote areas that don’t have the trappings of modern society because it’s a lifestyle choice. They appreciate wide, open spaces, fresh air, the slower pace of life. But they also like to access entertainment, might have to work from home, or are students with the need to access large amounts of data. From a provider standpoint, I think the argument is less about subsidizing something that is arguably a perk of modern life and potentially not a “right,” and more about allowing these populations to contribute to the economy.
There are arguments that access also contributes to a healthy democracy through a more informed citizenry, minimization of the digital divide, and the avenues for freedom of expression provided by online access.
If the satellite industry works to provide access to these communities by eliminating the pesky barriers of space of time, we make money, of course … And they do, too.
Besides improving work, quality of life, education, and entertainment, connectivity can also save lives – through telemedicine, access to health-care information, and so many other ways. Because of this, many believe that Internet access has become a basic human right, and should be a legal right, as well. In 2010, Finland became the first country to make broadband Internet access a legal right for all of its citizens.
It’s just another link in the communication continuum that began with the leveling of literacy with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the invention of affordable telephone service in the early 1900s, the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 to address low-cost utilities and natural resource management in depressed regions, education reform and access, and now the ongoing conversation about how to get the unconnected connected.
Are there pros and cons to being connected? Yes. Are all corporations working toward providing access to the estimated three billion people still not online operating from a completely altruistic point of view? Not possible.
Facebook likely looks forward to increased ad revenues from having more “eyeballs” on their Newsfeeds. Similarly with Elon Musk’s, Sergey Brin’s and Richard Branson’s plans. We operate businesses that need to make money to exist and fulfill our goals. But we should broaden our horizons about why we do that, and how we do that.
PHOTO INFO Top Photo: Seward Bay Harbor in Alaska. Inset Photo: Alexander Graham Bell in New York.