Free Internet access coming to the islands

Zuckerberg & Varela promise free Internet for Panamanians

This post is also available in: Spanish

On-the-Water by Illene Little

In the wake of the Summit of Americas held in Panama in May, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would provide free Internet access across Panama as he has already successfully done in Colombia, the Philippines and several African nations. That promise is now a reality through Internet.org, the Facebook-led initiative that provides free access to at least 24 websites featuring education, news, health, sports and entertainment contents, as well as Facebook and Facebook Messenger, all through the convenience of smartphones operating on Digicel Panamá’s cell phone service.

Zuckerberg & Varela promise free Internet for Panamanians

Zuckerberg & Varela promise free Internet for Panamanians.

Valid questions arise concerning the reality of delivering on the promise of making free Internet available across all of Panama. For starters, is the open nature of the Internet.org mission served well by the sort of exclusivity agreement entered into with Digicel Panama? Even if you are a Digicel customer, the reliability of service, from any of the providers, is not always 100% where one lives or works.

Here on Isla Saboga, in Las Perlas, Digicel reception only works on one side of the island. For the rest of the island, Movistar works better. Also, the language of “free Internet service” is misleading. While navigation to a limited number of internet sites will be free, the equation presupposes that the cell phone users are up-to-date paid subscribers of Digicel.

The consequences of Zuckerberg’s promise to Panama could have an economic ripple effect on island communities along both of the country’s coastlines. Living on Isla Saboga in Las Perlas, I experienced first hand the disadvantage of trying to run an online business venture in a remote location where there is no Internet service provider. However hard it was for me, it was harder still for the villagers who would often ask for my help to try to get them online so they could access basic tools to develop their businesses.

Technology is the new champion of the underdog in society. It equips people with the tool to communicate and expand their horizons. The Internet has transformed the proverb “Give a man a fish, and it feeds him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and it feeds him for a lifetime” into “Give a man access to technology, and he will teach himself to fish”.

Many of the remote islands are not covered by even 2G or 3G networks. On islands where basic cell and fiber infrastructure has been constructed by mobile operators, the obstacles to getting online are primarily economic. Connectivity, even when available, is expensive and therefore thwarts business growth. Connectivity is a powerful tool for change.

With access to technology, people exercise greater control over the information they consume and their path to self-education and self-sufficiency. “Zuckerberg’s pledge really shows how much the world is changing,” said Simon Black, CEO of SovereignMan.com. Black, who was in Panama for the Summit of the Americas, explained that “like the Agricultural Revolution, today’s Digital Revolution has changed everything, from the way that societies are organized to the way they engage in commerce.”

To learn more about Zuckerberg’s project, go to Internet.org/platform

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