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The last places on Earth without the internet  



Is there anywhere left on Earth where it’s impossible to access the internet? There are a
few places, but you have to go out of your way to find them.


It can be easy to forget what life was like before the internet. For many, not a day
goes by without checking email, browsing online or consulting Google. Some 1.3
billion people alive today are young enough never to have experienced anything
else. Yet has the network of networks underpinning all this activity actually
reached every part of the globe?
Various reasons still stop people accessing the internet where they live, of
course. There’s censorship, for starters. “We don’t get much traffic from North
Korea,” says John Graham-Cumming of Cloud Flare, a content delivery network
– the equivalent of a regional parcel distribution centre, but for web traffic.
“Likewise, early in the Syrian civil war they cut off internet access and we saw a
drop in traffic coming from those Syrian connections.”
It’s also a well-established problem that many of the world’s poorest people do
not have the means or technology to log on, with just 31% of people in the
developing world using the internet, compared to 77% in the developed
countries.
The people of North Korea have less access to modern technology than their
neighbours, as this night-time satellite image hints. (Nasa)
However, these political and social barriers to access do not necessarily tell us
about the physical extent of the internet itself. Assuming you had the right device
and the political freedom, is there anywhere left on Earth where the labyrinth of
cable and wireless signals does not reach?
Answering this question begins with an explanation of the various tiers of internet
access. The primary mechanisms for getting online are wired connections,
mobile networks and satellites. Fibre-optic cables make up the core of the
internet, criss-crossing oceans and land. The first of those communications
cables were put down in the 1850s for carrying telegraph signals. Today
they connect all continents except Antarctica, and include many – but not all
small island nations.
Mobile connections, meanwhile, rely on cell phone towers. And these can have
an impressive reach. “Two years ago I was in the Sahara, and for quite a large
amount of time I had access,” Graham-Cumming says. “It was patchy and slow,
but it was there.” Indeed, many developing countries, especially in Africa, rely
predominantly on mobile connections for accessing the internet.
Finally, satellites are the slowest means of getting online, but the only choice for
those living far from a cell phone tower or wire. The Iridium satellite constellation
coverage extends over the entire world, and their satellite phones can wire you
up in otherwise unconnected places, such as national parks in the US, Antarctica
or isolated spots of land like the Cook Islands. “If you live out in the sticks
somewhere, it makes no sense for your local telecom provider to run a fibre to
your house or farm,” says David Belson, editor of the quarterly State of the
Internet
report at Akamai, one of the world’s largest content delivery networks.
“So in many cases satellite is the optimal solution, although it may not be the
fastest one.” Sheer distance explains that delay: from the equator, for instance,
data needs to travel about 22,000 miles (35,000km) between satellite and user.