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Surprising Science

Want to Really Help the World’s Poorest? Get Them Broadband Internet!

For decades now, academics and songwriters alike have attempted to bridge the gap and extend a helping hand to the world’s poorest people. These efforts have varied from the insipid to the profound to the downright ridiculous. But the past five years or so has seen a fascinating emphasis on a new method in helping poor people at home and abroad. Just get them high-speed internet.

One of the first high-profile proponents of this very modern idea is Matt Stone, whose case study, “Wireless Broadband: a ‘Silver Bullet for Poverty,’” brings up a number of interesting ideas, starting with the early work of Philadelphia’s People’s Emergency Center. One of the oldest homeless shelters in the state, PEC has been offering wireless internet and computer training to its residents for years. This model for bringing broadband to low-income areas has since spread across the country.

Over the past decade, Pennsylvania has been a leader in establishing a strong and inclusive broadband infrastructure. States that haven’t made the same efforts in broadband are now starting to find a corollary between the broadband gap and poverty. A recent broadband report from the Center for Social Inclusion cites Mississippi as an example of a state that has rejected a number of applications for broadband expansion, contributing directly in the inability of poor communities of color to contribute to the economy. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia has even championed legislation to bring internet access to Appalachia, home to some of the country’s most isolated communities. Other states are now beginning to address their broadband inequities, but this is an issue that is becoming prominent the world over.

At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, UN Office for Partnership adviser Denis Gilhooly discussed the UN’s failure to reverse the effects of poverty and hunger. His primary reason? Their inability to harness the benefits of technology. While he didn’t mention broadband specifically, he did discuss the importance of mobile technology, which would only be enhanced by accessible broadband.

But there is hope for harnessing these technologies, particularly with regard to broadband. Uhurunet, a continent-wide African broadband network, is slated to be fully operational by the end of the year. A key aspect of the development plan from the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the network will be an undersea series of cables wrapping all around Africa. This unprecedented collaboration between multiple African governments and corporations is expected to spur economic development.  

No one is saying that broadband is going to wipe out poverty in its entirety. But Harvard lecturer Elaine Kamarck has specifically looked to President Obama to push this initiative at the national level, noting that “the government’s efforts should be focused on expanding access to Internet and other technologies for as many Americans as possible while continuing to develop our national broadband capacity.” We can only assume President Obama is checking his inbox regularly.


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