Paul English, the cofounder of travel search engine Kayak.com, wants to blanket all of Africa with free and low-cost Wi-Fi. It's a "big, big project," one that will consume the next decade of his life, English tells FastCompany.com.
JoinAfrica aims to bring a world of information to a continent whose population only has 8.7% Internet penetration right now. At the core of JoinAfrica is the belief that providing basic Internet is as essential to society as clean water and power.
English plans to kick off the nonprofit/for-profit hybrid this summer by creating partnerships between JoinAfrica and local African for-profit telcos. JoinAfrica would first branch out existing Web connections in villages using, for example, simple WiMAC hubs. Through these hubs, JoinAfrica would provide residents with free basic Web service, including access to email, Google, Wikipedia, and various news sources. Downloads of data-rich video, porn, or other non-essential sites would be limited (similar to what libraries in the U.S. do now) via a process called "bandwidth shaping." Local for-profits would charge for upgraded access and faster connection speeds, and English is also searching for ways to make sure these local companies continuously improve the service and lay more fiber.
"I want this to be completely self-sustaining," he says.
From his home in Boston, English says he's already bought satellite dishes and other gear and helped hook up villages in a number of African countries over the past decade, from Burundi to Uganda and Malawi to Zambia. "Having email and Skype has been transformative for the handful of villages I've worked in," he says. He cites the example of a doctor who, unable to diagnose a patient's rash, was able to take a photograph of it, email it to a doctor in Boston, and then communicate online to find a cure—turns out the mystery rash needed immediate treatment.
Soon, however, it became clear that one-off projects weren't enough. "It occurred to me that there is something bigger that needs to be done," he says. "The continent of Africa has been so fucked over from an economic standpoint — as an engineer, how do I use my skills to do something that's transformative?"
English says he's aware of the potential for corruption from local for-profits but promises he's working with infrastructure experts to assure the system is "incredibly measurable and incredibly managed." He's hired two MIT grad students to help and has contacts in a half-dozen African countries to get started on the first phase of the project, which will focus on areas where basic infrastructure is already in place.
Though English admits the project might cost billions, he's committed to the initiative, even if it means self-financing. Kayak, he jokes, has helped indirectly already. "The way Kayak is involved is that it's helping make me very wealthy, and I plan to deploy that wealth," he says. And while ever completing a project of this size might be a long shot, English says he's on the verge of announcing a major infrastructure partner (he declined to say exactly who just yet). JoinAfrica's massive scale and hybrid business model have won over potential partners who might otherwise have viewed a free Internet scheme as a threat to their existing for-profit infrastructure.
"If you take something, raise it up a couple of notches, and say, let's do something on a massive scale, it changes the conversation," English says.
Head to JoinAfrica.org to get involved and join the conversation.