Obama, Zuckerberg push better broadband, innovative startups

Obama administration unveils new initiatives to promote global startups as Obama calls for broadband expansion and freedom of expression on the web.

President Obama marked the 7th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit with a visit to Silicon Valley and the announcement of a host of initiatives aimed at boosting Internet connectivity and promoting the development of innovative startups at home and abroad.

Obama was joined by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who along with entrepreneurs from Africa and South America called for a global regulatory climate that would be friendlier to tech startups and the expansion of the broadband infrastructure that has become the lifeblood for young businesses born on the web.

"The biggest thing that I'm personally focused on is connectivity," Zuckerberg said, calling the lack of reliable, high-speed Internet access "a blocking factor" for billions of people around the world.

"If you grew up and you never used a computer or you've never had access to the Internet, it's often hard to even imagine what you're missing out on," Zuckerberg said.

"And this is a local problem, but I think we need to do a better job of empowering folks in different countries to be able to spread connectivity," he added. "This isn't something that the U.S. or some American company can come in and do. In the places where it's worked it's been in partnership with local companies and local entrepreneurs and local governments."

Obama echoed that call for expanding Internet access, suggesting that "the huge opportunity here is for countries to leapfrog existing infrastructure" in areas like mobile apps and financial services, and crediting progress on those fronts in Africa and India.

Top down government control incompatible with entrepreneurship and connectivity

At the same time, Obama noted the friction that can arise with building out a robust broadband infrastructure to support brisk data flows in nations that have a vested interest in curbing online speech.

"It is hard to foster and encourage an entrepreneurial culture if it's closed and if information flows are blocked," Obama said. "And what we are seeing around the world oftentimes is governments wanting the benefits of entrepreneurship and connectivity, but thinking that top-down control is also compatible with that. And it's not."

The Obama administration has made Internet issues a focal point in its diplomatic work around the world, and is looking to build on those efforts with a new wave of initiatives designed to support Internet-enabled businesses.

Obama issued an executive order codifying programs geared to support entrepreneurship overseas, including the Global Connect Initiative, a State Department-led effort that will "focus on encouraging foreign countries to prioritize Internet connectivity in development plans," promote digital literacy and support the development of "technical and regulatory best practices."

Additionally, the administration is launching efforts to promote clean energy development in Africa, including programs to provide seed funding for startup companies that draw support from tech luminaries like Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

U.S. AID is also looking ahead to 2017 for the "Geeks on a Plane" tour that it is launching with the business incubator 500 Startups to engage with entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa "to explore partnership and investment opportunities," according to a fact sheet provided by the White House.

The White House has also lined up numerous commitments from firms in the private sector in support of global entrepreneurship, including funding pledges from venture capital firms and efforts to promote training and mentorship.

"It turns out that starting your own business is not easy," Obama said. "You have to have access to capital. You have to meet the right people. You have to have mentors who can guide you as you get your idea off the ground."

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