Technology is by no means simply technical. It is mostly about the ways that we are human. The ways that we interact. It stirs a spectre of ethical and political questions. Questions about equity, justice as fairness, the cost of exclusion, social power, and habitus. Technology is social. A nascent Metaverse, NFTs, EVs, 3D spatial data, 4K HD photography, and DOWs are all about the ways we interrelate.

Technology is cultural, according to Caroline Bassett at Cambridge Digital Humanities. The confetti of sensors sprinkled across a vast array of networked physical objects makes technology social, never purely technical. Metadata is already creating patterns that no one ever knew existed.  As intelligent objects become ubiquitous, a new world of openings is arising from the larger and richer data sets that these devices mine and stream.

The Development Impact Lab (DIL) at the University of Berkley, California, and the the SWEETLab at Portland State University have been working on sensor-driven technology to attract attention to the “Internet of Broken Things”. These labs support innovations by evaluating, prototyping, and scaling technologies for low resource settings worldwide. Their sensor designs are used on water pumps in Kenya, stoves in India, water filters in Indonesia, and in Vietnam to monitor irrigation levels, fertilizer disbursement, and climate fluctuations.

The Internet has become a global infrastructure. As the digital economy continues to enmesh the world, there is a genuine risk that those without adequate connectivity will be progressively excluded from participation. Part of the global population remains unserved by any digital communication network. Others are served by networks that remain unready to offer high-bandwidth and interactive content services. The largest group are those with the potential to be served by broadband networks but remain offline.

An analysis of these layers of “connectedness” brings into relief three gaps: 1) A Coverage Gap that focuses on those yet to be covered by mobile or fixed connectivity infrastructure. 2) An Upgrade Gap that focuses on populations covered by mobile or fixed network services but does not qualify as broadband, as they still use 2G mobile networks or dial-in PSTN/ ISDN fixed networks. And 3), the Adoption Gap is where segments of the population are covered by existing broadband, but are not connected because broadband services may be unaffordable or because they do not have digital skills. The prevalence of these three gaps in any specific geography must be set against a backcloth of the overall gap and vision for the future.

Preliminary estimates point to a disbursement somewhere between USD 428 billion and USD 2 trillion to close the gaps and bridge the divides. Affordability is defined by the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development as the availability of broadband at a price of less than two per cent of the monthly gross national income (GNI) per capita.  This commission intends to make broadband tariffs affordable in developing countries by 2025. It is here that bureaucracies will find a fertile field in using TV White Spaces for broadband connectivity.

To influence this future requires policy-makers to scan the horizon for new prototypes around innovative investment strategies that would enable and empower existing and new business models to reach the global goal of connecting the unconnected. Half of the world’s population – that is 3.7 billion people – are offline. There is no alternative outside of disrupting existing financing models for sustainable broadband development.  How do we invest in, finance, and fund broadband development beyond its current geographical and demographic footprint?

The Community Collaboration and Deployment model of finance focuses on the last-mile network. The network is simplified into small cells of either satellite-enabled cellular or Wi-Fi sites, which are easy to deploy. The community takes responsibility for its maintenance. Community involvement results in lower costs for the operator. Another version of this model allows governments to count community networks towards their coverage obligations, and in exchange, the operator can provide backhaul at a reduced cost. This model also embraces CSR funds and grants from foundations and philanthropic institutions.

Blended Finance consists of financing a project using an amalgam of contributors including investors, financiers, and funders who have particular but compatible interests. Combining funds that require market returns with the use of funds that expect a lower return and public subsidies (generating no return) permits participants to receive the return they want. This layering of financing is done by international organizations or funds, whose support also adds credibility and thus viability to the project, attracting venture capitalists and angel financiers. This model can also include contributions from a charitable bequest to a non-profit organization, trust or foundation.

Loss-Guarantee schemes address some risk elements that inhibit private investors including country-specific political and currency risks. The Dual Deployment Model involves deploying a complimentary service in addition to broadband connectivity – for example, energy or other utility services in addition to connectivity. The two services are billed together. This model is radical. It requires the operator to effectively function as a utility service provider, and may require commercial and organizational transformation. Humans are swimming in about 35 billion sensors that stream data into life-changing decisions.  But which humans? And for whose interest?