(An earlier version of this story ran online.)
Taking the podium in the U.S. Department of State’s Ben Franklin Room one last time before stepping down on Feb. 1, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked a lot of people, offered reminiscences, and announced a flurry of last-minute programs. “We’re all, like, one millisecond away from just collapsing here, because of the emotion and the feelings that are coursing through all of us,” she said
One of those new programs, the Alliance for an Affordable Internet, barely got a mention in Clinton’s speech. But it merits attention. The public-private partnership among the State Department, the World Wide Web Foundation, and tech companies including Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo! (YHOO), Intel (INTC), and Cisco Systems (CSCO), aims to give more people in developing countries access to the Web. It could also open new markets for Silicon Valley. “We’re going to help the next billion people come online,” Clinton said, before moving on to talk about clean cook stoves for women in poor nations.
Only a quarter of people in developing countries are online, compared with three-quarters in developed nations. If the U.S. helps change that imbalance, the credit will go in part to Ann Mei Chang, a former senior engineering director at Google who joined the State Department in November 2011 as an adviser on technology and women’s issues. She now lives in Nairobi, Kenya, a city Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has called Africa’s soon-to-be Silicon Valley. Kenya has some of the fastest, cheapest Internet access in Africa thanks to government investment in technology, low taxes on hardware and software, and policies discouraging communications monopolies. Chang spends her time teaming up diplomats with U.S. tech companies and nonprofit groups to figure out how other countries can follow Kenya’s example.
In many developing countries, Internet service is far more expensive than most workers can afford, in part because computers, phones, modems, and software are often taxed as luxury goods. “It’s one of the few things they can tax,” says Chang. “That’s shortsighted.”
Poor countries also lack the physical infrastructure that forms the Web’s backbone. In developed nations, Web traffic moves between service providers through hubs called IXPs, or Internet exchange points. In the U.S. there are dozens of these hubs; Kenya has at least one. Ethiopia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and 101 other countries worldwide have none, according to Packet Clearing House, a technology research firm. Web traffic from these nations must travel over international fiber-optic cables to hubs hundreds or thousands of miles away, slowing service and driving up costs. The Alliance hopes to use corporate and diplomatic power to push governments to change laws getting in the way of Internet access.
At this point it’s not entirely clear how this will be accomplished. As U.S. diplomats press governments to invest in IXPs and deregulate telecommunications, the companies will lend the State Department and governments abroad technical expertise. The firms have also pitched in seed capital, though State won’t say how much. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Cisco all confirmed membership in the group; Intel did not respond to a request for comment.
“We want to go in with a unified voice and say, ‘There are things we think you can do so the Internet will flourish and will cause your economy to thrive,’ ” says Chang, who used a similar pitch to get big tech companies to sign on to the project: A flourishing Internet in the developing world will help them thrive, too.