This article arises from Future Tense, a joint effort of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate that looks at emerging technologies and their implications for policy and for society. On Thursday, Nov. 29, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the future of Internet governance. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website. The event will also be streamed.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is little known, but it wields a tremendous amount of power: It controls all of the Web’s top-level domains (those letters after the “dot,” like .com and .org). Currently, ICANN is in the midst of creating hundreds (and possibly thousands) of new, generic top-level domains (gTLDs) that span a host of different ideas, from .web to .cars to .anything_else_you_can_imagine. These new gTLDs have the potential to dramatically affect the future of Internet browsing, and they’re already stirring up some serious discussion. (Saudi Arabia, for one, doesn’t want .gay, .bible, or other dozens of other proposed domains to be approved.) But the auction process to distribute them also has the potential for even greater impact than currently envisioned.
ICANN’s new generic top-level domain process has been dragging on for years—basically since the organization’s inception in 1998. But this year, it is finally coming to fruition, and as early as April 2013 we are likely to see the first group of new gTLDS—in essence, ICANN will empower specific legal entities to control how to use and sell these domain names. This process means significant amounts of money may start rolling in soon: It already costs $185,000 to apply for a gTLD, but when there are multiple bidders for the same string—like .web or .app—they will be put up for auction.
For instance, the .web gTLD is widely desired by a number of different organizations, as it is the most likely contender to possibly challenge the king of all gTLDs: .com. There are currently eight applicants for .web, including Google, German Internet giant 1&1, and incumbent registry operator Afilias (which manages .org and .info) among other bidders. We expect that the bidding for .web alone is likely to be in excess of $5 million and could potentially reach $10 million or more. For the .app gTLD, there are 11 applicants—and we may see a titanic bidding war between Google and Amazon. There are hundreds more contended strings that are likely to go to auction and raise tens of millions of additional dollars—even $100 million isn’t out of the question.
All told, there are more than 1,900 applications for roughly 1,000 unique strings in this first wave. The $185,000 application fee is intended to fund the ICANN process, but the proceeds from contention auctions are considered “excess funds” that are not already earmarked to cover costs. The challenge will be to use these proceeds in a way that best benefits the public interest and the global Internet. In talking with key stakeholders over the last couple of years, everyone agrees that allocating these funds will be a challenge and likely to be fraught with politics.
We've been involved in the ICANN process since its inception, and believe that these proceeds can and should be used to do something game-changing and truly visionary: build and maintain free wireless Internet infrastructure for huge swaths of the continent of Africa or an equally disconnected, high-poverty area of the planet. This is an audacious idea that many might originally dismiss as impractical—but that's because their thinking is stuck inside the box. We know that it can be done—and how. Providing free wireless Internet infrastructure for the continent of Africa would be a dream come true—the kind of outcome that would help bridge the digital divide and garner huge socioeconomic benefits for decades to come.
But would $100 million actually be enough to build useful, sustainable infrastructure? It would, if its creators use many of the newer “mesh” technologies that are now coming online. African's Internet penetration currently hovers around 15 percent—less than half the world average. And roughly half of African countries have single-digit broadband penetration rates. The digital divide looms large, in no small part because many Africans simply cannot afford current broadband prices.
To help solve this problem, we can use what are called mesh technologies, which are significantly cheaper than the systems we use in the developed world. More importantly, they can easily interconnect and extend existing infrastructure in remarkably cost-effective ways. Instead of connecting people through a central hub or tower, mesh architectures resemble more of a spider web, in which data can flow through a large number of routes to reach their destination. Because there's no single point of failure within a mesh network and because of the redundancy of pathways within these systems, they're often more resilient—harder for human intervention or natural disaster to take down as well as more difficult to surveille and censor.
Projects like CommotionWireless.net and OpenGarden.net have developed game-changing technologies that allow existing cellphones to connect with each other directly, for free. They can also share bandwidth from one cellphone throughout an entire network of devices, allowing people who don't have Internet connectivity to browse the Web or send email via someone else's connection. Now what's needed is a bold, widespread implementation of these technologies. There's no reason Africa shouldn’t take advantage of new technologies and new business models to provide a modest amount of connectivity each month for anyone who wants it.
In essence, what we're proposing is the widespread unlocking of existing technologies, the creation of hybrid networks that take advantage of recent advances in ad-hoc wireless networking, and the digital enfranchisement of the billions of people who cannot afford to participate in current business models. Providing basic connectivity is not expensive—more importantly, unlocking devices and allowing peer-to-peer connectivity costs absolutely nothing.
A $100 million intervention would enable a wide-ranging proof-of-concept of today's cutting-edge mesh wireless technologies. It would demonstrate the viability of new hybrid networking architectures that opportunistically used for-fee services when necessary and offload to free alternatives whenever possible. It would enable us to try out numerous innovative business models. And most importantly, it would point the way forward—helping solve the problem of how to grant access to the Internet's vast resources to the substantial majority of humanity who are not meaningfully online.
With the gTLD auctions now pending, ICANN has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the digital destinies of billions of people. With ICANN's help, we can realize a world where Africa rivals any country on the planet when it comes to online connectivity. And where African citizens can take it for granted that meaningful (online) civic participation is universally available. We've already seen how even modest resources like the mobile micropayment system M-Pesa have helped spur a new generation of entrepreneurship—imagine what's possible when free connectivity is available to all.