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The Man Who Sold The Sky

In Robert Heinlein's classic science-fiction story "The Man Who Sold the Moon," an outrageously extravagant entrepreneur constructs a huge and elaborate business plan inspired by the question, "Who owns the moon?" The entrepreneur has noticed that the moon only passes directly over those parts of the earth within about 30 degrees of the equator (more or less the Third World), and given that property rights are generally understood to extend down to the center of the earth and upward without limit, he asks himself, what if someone set about buying up the "lunar claims" of these Third World "Moon States."

It's an entertaining story, but it's just science fiction. Greg Wyler is a real-world entrepreneur who merely plans to hook up the 3 billion people in the Moon States to the World Wide Web. His company, O3B Networks, has as its mission to make the Internet accessible and affordable to the "other three billion" (hence "O3B") people in the developing world, enriching lives and ensuring fair and equal access to information throughout the entire world.

That's all.

Wyler doesn't call them the Moon States, but just as the moon only passes over that part of the earth near the equator, communications satellites in certain economically attractive orbits can communicate only with ground-based stations within a certain distance from the equator. The countries in this tropical band not only have a (questionable, to be sure) claim on the moon, they also have a privileged position relative to the reach of equatorially orbiting Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) communications satellites.

O3b Networks will pursue its mission by ringing the earth with MEO satellites tricked out with the equipment necessary to empower other ground-based businesses to wire up the Third World.

In addition to technical expertise, O3B Networks' investors, Google, international cable operator Liberty Global, and private equity provider HSBC, have put $65 million into O3B Networks' effort, so this is not just an outrageously ambitious and high-minded dream. It is that, but it's not just that.

Teach a Man to Fish

The plan has spawned a lot of online discussion, and inevitably someone asks some variation of this question:

When the average income in parts of the Third World is $2 a year and disease and starvation are rampant and there is a lack of stable government or a functioning economy and illiteracy is almost universal and there are no computers anyway, wouldn't food or clean water be more helpful than access to The Google? What's wrong with the question is that it assumes that the disaster stories we read on the Internet actually represent typical life in the developing countries. People who have worked there tell a different story.

Richard Koman, writing on the ZDNet Government site, recalls working on the Uganda Digital Bookmobile. "We loaded books onto hard drives and drove out to the villages. Many other aspects of [Brewster Kahle's] bookmobile concept could have been enabled if there were any meaningful net access on the continent."

But there isn't. The fact is that there are more broadband Internet users in Belgium than in all of Africa. "Med staff could drive a bookmobile around, learn about villagers' medical complaints, and access information for the village," Koman adds. "None of that was happening without the net. So O3B Networks' [plan] is welcome news indeed."

Wyler knows something about Third World communications access, having pioneered the first commercial 3G mobile and fiber-to-the-home network in Africa, and he puts it this way: "We have seen the impact of low-cost/high-quality bandwidth in emerging markets. It transcends just 'cheaper Internet,' but becomes a core pillar of economic growth. Along with transportation and power, these are the building blocks of an economy."

"Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day," goes the Chinese proverb. "Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." "Give a person Internet access" is the 21st century equivalent of "Teach a man to fish."

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