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The Web Turns 20: Free Bandwidth Connects the Masses, Part 3 of 4

In this third article of a four-part series commemorating the World Wide Web's 20th birthday, Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti describes an effort to bring free Internet access to African communities
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COURTESY OF CHADIVE SAMANTHAKAMANI, VIA ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Editor's Note: The World Wide Web went live 20 years ago this month, on a single computer in Geneva, Switzerland. For the anniversary the Web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has written an exclusive article for Scientific American. In it he confronts various threats that could ruin the Web, and explains why preserving the basic principles that have allowed the Web to flourish is essential to preventing its destruction.

While preparing the article, Berners-Lee also spoke to
Scientific American about emerging Web capabilities that could change how the online and physical worlds work. This four-part series covers some of the most intriguing, including the power of linked data, social machines, free bandwidth to the masses, and Web science.

Indeed, the Web is thriving—a recent cover story in
Wired magazine to the contrary notwithstanding. Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti tackles the differences between the two magazine's treatments in his blog, "The Web is (Not) Dead."


Only 20 percent of the world's people use the Web, even though 80 percent live in places where some kind of Internet signal or connection exists. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web 20 years ago this month, says inspiring initiatives by individuals and institutions could change that ratio.

For example, Berners-Lee was part of a recent meeting called by Rwanda President Paul Kagame, former British Prime Minster Gordon Brown and Paul English, a Boston-based software entrepreneur. English made a case that very-low-bandwidth Internet—enough for "text only" Web pages—could be provided free across Africa. A second tier of paid access to higher speed service, provided by African entrepreneurs, would support the free service. Most citizens would access the Web wirelessly, using mobile phones or laptops. Everyone at the meeting pledged to support the idea, and a project has already begun.

Could such a scheme succeed financially? Netia, the Polish Internet service provider, thinks so. When the company offered free low-bandwidth connections in three counties, it quickly recouped the investment from the many people who upgraded to its pay service. Berners-Lee notes, "If through commercial astuteness, or government regulation, very-low-bandwidth Internet service can be made free, and if device suppliers put enough Web capability into the next wave of cheap phones, we could see an accelerated wave of new access to the Web. Education, health and a local entrepreneurial economy could all rise in its wake."

Developing countries everywhere could initiate similar plans, Berners-Lee adds. Other initiatives to broaden Web access are being led by the international Web Foundation, which has a mission to see that the Web serves humanity as well as possible.

For more from Berners-Lee on electronic human rights, see "Long Live the Web."

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