“John” is an American originally from sunny California now living in a remote coastal village on the island of Leyte. “Per” is originally from Barcelona but chose to set up a dive resort in a rural area in Puerto Princesa. “Mike” is a retired Brit from the UK who chose to live in the highlands of the Sierra Madre. These are three use cases of foreigners living in the Philippines. Rather than choose the comforts of an urban center like Manila, where access to most necessities can be met, they chose to live in out of the way places that are far from the comforts of modern civilization. What they have in common is a love for adventure and living with nature and local surroundings.
You might be thinking but how can they keep in touch with family and friends back home? The use of cellular networks in these rural and remote areas is spotty, and access to the Internet is very poor. Sometimes electricity has to be provided by generators and rolling blackouts are quite frequent. These foreigners rely on the Internet a lot because they either post content on their Youtube channel or blogs. They also need it to send e-mail, process transactions and catch the latest news. In most of these areas, TV signals are also poor or you would need an antenna.
With a smartphone it is easier to access information via the Internet but it is intermittent in most of these areas due to the signaling. Perhaps it won’t be much of a problem in the future, as the infrastructure is being built to address the needs of even the most remote residents on planet Earth. Once fully operational, it will surely benefit the Digital Nomads.
There are 4 building blocks for supporting Digital Nomads:
- Satellite Internet Service
- Renewable Energy Sources
- Digital Currency Systems
- Sovereign Digital Identity
Satellite Internet Service
The Internet is going to be the most important infrastructure element for Digital Nomads who choose the rural lifestyle. It provides the interconnection that becomes ubiquitous with daily life. The development of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite service will help deliver Internet service to the most remote corners of the world. It is still in beta, but as the system becomes more ready for wide scale use, the availability for such service could encourage more Digital Nomads. The trend seems to favor moving from densely populated urban areas to more suburban areas, as what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others will choose the path less taken and that is to migrate to a more remote area where the quality of life is better with cost of living much less than the city.
Starlink offers a network of satellites that can deliver Internet to remote areas much better than terrestrial based systems. Mobile operators have to build communications towers in remote areas where the demand may not be so great. Remember that these areas are not heavily populated so there is no incentive to invest in bringing 4G LTE or 5G networks to these areas any time soon. At other times it is near impossible to build infrastructure in these areas because there are no sources for electricity or access from main roads or airports. It just does not make sense from a business perspective. The terrain may also block line of sight radio signals used in communications, so there are many challenges to face.
Access to the Internet from rural areas is not just important for the basic reasons Digital Nomads would use the Internet for (e.g. content, working, entertainment, etc.). It gives them access to better healthcare through telemedicine. It is important not to neglect your health, especially when living far away from home. Through the Internet, Digital Nomads can have access to their doctor or medical practitioner. The only drawback is that telemedicine requires plenty of bandwidth, especially when using video.
That is why satellites are the best option for data and communications delivery in these places. Starlink provides data speeds lower than 1 Gbps, which is not as fast as 5G. There is also latency of 20-40 seconds since there is a propagation delay with satellites. What matters is that it can deliver Internet and with time the systems can be tweaked for faster data speeds.
At the moment, a speed test of Starlink actually gave quite convincing results. It was 95% faster than most current household Internet connections. The test was conducted from a rural spot in the state of Montana. This shows the potential for Starlink and how it can help boost connectivity for Digital Nomads.
Renewable Energy Sources
While the grid still meets the energy requirements of large population centers, rural areas have to rely on other sources. Most are not connected to the grid, either because of geographical constraints or for economic reasons related to profitability in business. If you have only a dozen residents there is no need to build a power plant in that location. The cost would be a burden to the operator and it can quickly go bankrupt unless there were some subsidy from the government. Subsidizing it may not be beneficial to the government if the supply far outweighs the demand.
Exploring renewable energy sources makes the most sense. Energy from sunlight, tides, wind and bio-fuels are just some ways to generate electricity to provide power for Digital Nomads. A combination of a fuel generator and renewable energy source can provide the energy requirements to live off the grid. For high wattage appliances that consume large amounts of electricity like washers, dryers and refrigerators a fuel generator will provide the power needed for operation. Meanwhile, renewable sources can provide power to less power hungry devices like computers, home electronics, lights and smartphones.
Better yet, it is best to combine renewable energy sources with energy storage devices like batteries. A battery system, like Tesla’s PowerPack, can store energy for later use. The cons of renewable sources of energy is that they are intermittent. When the sun is not shining it cannot provide energy for solar panels. When the wind is not blowing there is no source for power generation. The best solution is to pair these sources with a battery system to store power that can be utilized later. That way, the sunlight captured during the day can be used for power during the night.
Digital Currency Systems
The use of digital or virtual currency (including cryptocurrency) is proving to be useful to another group of Digital Nomads. These are your world travelers, who blog or write about their adventures. They spend most of the year living overseas in places like Bali or Cabo San Lucas. They write articles, blog about adventures or simply share experiences about their daily life. Others are yoga instructors, programmers, artists, environmentalists and content creators. They still need money in order to survive, so there has to be a way for them to receive payments no matter what part of the world they are in.
Many of these Digital Nomads will have access to digital banking using the Internet. It is not the same as digital currency itself, but having access to it is vital in most cases. They can receive payments directly from Youtube for example, to their bank in the US. They can then use a payment processor in the current country they are in to convert money from dollars to the local currency. For those who don’t have access to this type of system, it would be much harder of course.
Digital currency provides another solution. You can have a team of software engineers based in India, Taiwan or the US while the main operations can be based in San Francisco. Payments are made using cryptocurrency like ETH (Ether) which uses a blockchain-based system for transferring value. Once the software engineer in Taiwan receives their ETH, they can convert it to their local currency through a digital exchange. The use of cryptocurrency provides a faster and frictionless way to make cross border payments.
Sovereign Digital Identity
This is perhaps another important element for Digital Nomads. What if you can provide your ID in one simple format rather than having to present your passport or driver license every time? A sovereign digital identity would provide that information in a secure manner. The Digital Nomad owns their personal information, and can share it only with consent. Such a system would have to be decentralized and non-custodial to a third party or other entity. This makes the Digital Nomad the sole owner of their information.
The personally identifiable information or PII is stored either on a device like a smartphone or hashed as provable on a blockchain. The information can be kept confidential using ZKP (Zero Knowledge Proof), which obfuscates personal data but can verify it to whoever needs a user’s verification. For example you can use ZKP to prove you are over 21 years of age to buy liquor without having to show your actual age to the verifier. Details like address, height, weight and other data does not really need to shown if the only thing required is your age.
It would be more convenient to present your ID from a QR code for verification rather than to have to take out paper documents or ID cards. It can also be a headache when these documents are lost. A digital identity is something you cannot lose once it is on a blockchain. The blockchain keeps it secure and tamper proof, providing a layer of security and safety. It can be verified at any time and any place electronically, which is much faster than having to take out documents and calling an embassy or consul to verify the data.
Not all Digital Nomads will choose to live in rural areas. Many will probably choose a more resort type of vibe that is close to the comforts of modern life, while others will settle in a new urban center (e.g. Smart Cities). In the 3 use cases, it is about Digital Nomads who choose to live away from the city. They are getting by, even without full access to the Internet. Once they have the infrastructure, things will become more seamless with their digital lifestyle with their data speeds matching up to what they used to have back in their home country. This fosters better access to the Internet to deliver services and communications that support daily life.