Tech by VICE

Why Closing The Digital Divide Might Mean Skipping Wi-Fi Altogether

The biggest problem with wireless data is the price of subscriptions.

by Joel Balsam
Mar 31 2017, 12:00pm

Cartagena, Colombia. Image: Francisco Osorio/Flickr

I've travelled quite a bit, and the hardest part hasn't been the bumpy bus rides, long stretches away from home, or getting the shits, although I got 'em pretty bad in India—it's finding decent Wi-Fi. Most of the places I've been have hair-pulling-out speed, if they have internet at all.

But I've found a solution.

At the first sign of Wi-Fi trouble, I go for the 3G/4G cellular internet on my phone. I'm in Colombia right now and my local monthly plan is—Canadians, shield your eyes—2GB of data with unlimited Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp for less than $20 per month.

That got me wondering: with cellular data so cheap, will the world skip fixed broadband (Wi-Fi) and go directly to cellular data? I mean, the developing world pretty much never adopted landlines, so why not Wi-Fi?

In the US, this hypothesis makes sense. Despite vast networks of phone and TV cables making Wi-Fi accessible, new wireless technology running on radio waves (spectrum) instead of cables is pushing Wi-Fi into obsolescence. In the next couple years, you'll be able to get stupidly fast 5G with speeds 100 times what's available now. Plus, unlimited data plans make it possible to get fast wireless internet anytime, anywhere.

In a place like Canada, going totally wireless feels a lot more far-fetched. Canadians already face the most expensive internet of all G7 countries, according to the CRTC. Unlimited data plans virtually don't exist.

For most Canadians, Wi-Fi is just fine. But for the almost one-in-five who are either low income or living in remote areas, getting high-speed Wi-Fi isn't possible, according to internet connectivity advocacy group OpenMedia.

Read More: Canadians Were Promised Internet For All, But the Budget Doesn't Deliver

The CRTC is trying to remedy this with a $750 million promise, plucked from the revenues of Canadian telecom companies, to bring these communities high-speed internet over the next five years. Plus, municipalities are starting to invest tax dollars on fiber-optic cable.

But what if you're a country without a relatively strong economy like Canada's? Here's where skipping Wi-Fi seems more reasonable, although far from a foregone conclusion.

Nearly four billion people in the world are cut off from the internet, including 60 percent of the population in developing countries and 85 percent in the least developed countries, according to a 2016 report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency responsible for issues relating to information and communication technologies. One of the main reasons people in less developed countries can't get online is because they never had much in the way of infrastructure for fixed broadband.

But many telecom companies in these countries don't see laying down cables for Wi-Fi as a worthwhile investment.

"Seeing mobile broadband in developing countries is more likely than seeing Wi-Fi, because Wi-Fi would actually require investment in fixed networks first," François Rancy, the director of the ITU's Radiocommunication Bureau, said in an interview.

Instead, telecom companies are investing in wireless since they're able to license its services (Wi-Fi is unlicensed) and make bigger profits in the long run. Because of this investment from telecom, wireless is already pretty much everywhere. Seven billion people (95 percent of the world's population) live in an area that can access 2G wireless, while 84 percent live in a place that can get 3G and above, according to the ITU report. That is, if they could afford it.

Besides wireless data's obvious drawbacks—unreliability, it doesn't work in some buildings or subways, data caps are low, etc.—the biggest problem is the price of subscriptions, which can gobble up between 2 and 30 percent of the average paycheck for someone living in developing and least-developed countries. In the developed world, subscriptions cost less than 2 percent of the average paycheck.

Subscription prices are going down, but Rancy says less developed countries need to search for other options.

"Reducing the digital divide is something which is not easy, but I think we have good trends and we have good technological solutions that are actually at hand and are now being deployed throughout the world to counteract this," he said.

In other words, put our faith in technology. For now, though, we're pretty much stuck with what we've got.

I probably owe the router at this Colombian café a kiss and an apology. Wi-Fi isn't obsolete, yet.

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