Gates sceptical of Google’s balloon internet connectivity helping the poor

12 Aug 2013


Scoffing at Google's plan to bring internet connectivity to developing countries, Bill Gates told Businesweek, ''when you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you.''

He, however, added that while he  was a huge believer in the digital revolution and connecting primary-health-care centres and schools, but when a child got diarrhoea, there was no website that could help. 

Google's Project Loon, announced in June this year, envisages using a series of high altitude balloons to broadcast wifi over regions with poor infrastructure.

Initial tests with 30 balloons in New Zealand had proved successful, showing how the system could relay internet connections via ground-based receivers.
This would help provide access to the web in places where it would be highly expensive to install broadband cable.

Gates, however, is sceptical of the long-term help such a project would offer. He said that while Google had originally set out to have a remit that was much far broader, the company was now just doing ''its core thing'', adding that the actors who would do the core thing were not going to uplift the poor.

Meanwhile, columnist and blogger Tim Worstall said in a Forbes article that Google's attempts to provide a balloon-based internet in the remote parts of the world had been unfairly criticised by Gates, as it ignored something very important.

According to Worstall, in the 1960s a third of the world was rich and two-thirds very poor, but now the biggest block of the world's population in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and China had moved from poor to to middle-income, reducing the size of the ''very poor world'', thanks to continuous interventions.

Therefore, it was a rather unkind of Gates to be dismissive about what Google was doing. Rich countries did not have the kind of diseases of the poor simply because they were rich and had the resources to deal with them through sanitation, the draining of the marshes and so on.

While providing cat videos to dying African children was not what was directly needed, but providing a communications system that produced economic growth would mean that those who survived would, were much less likely to see their own children suffer, which was an admirable enough goal in itself.

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