Facebook Wants to Bring the Internet to 5 Billion. But Can It?

Mark Zuckerberg co-launches Internet.org and calls connectivity a human right.

In the 21st century, the Internet is a global empire of the air, pushing information, commerce, and entertainment from node to node. But it's a lopsided empire, concentrated in those parts of the world that have already built out their infrastructure and in those persons who can afford to pay for the privilege. Many groups, governments, and populations want to change that.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is one of them. And Zuckerberg has a plan, and a posse.

In a post on his personal Facebook page late Tuesday night, Zuckerberg announced a new initiative called Internet.org, which aims to bring inexpensive wireless data to any and all of the more than five billion people with a mobile phone, to breach the so-called digital divide.

In a ten-page essay titled "Is Connectivity A Human Right," Zuckerberg outlined a plan to reduce the cost of mobile data worldwide to enable something close to universal access to the basic benefits of the Internet, including Facebook.

Cisco's annual Internet services adoption forecast shows that while the Internet is growing everywhere, with access predicted to increase from 32 percent of the world's population today to 48 percent by 2017, access in North America and Western Europe far outstrips that of the rest of the world. In particular, for much of the world, especially in Latin America and the Asia Pacific region, the only form of Internet access is mobile.

Zuckerberg says that Facebook has already spent over a billion dollars building Internet infrastructure in the developing world. Even extended over a decade, it's not enough.

Estimating current global Internet access at 2.7 billion people, Zuckerberg argues that the 9 percent yearly growth in Internet adoption is much too slow.

"The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be profitable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever," writes Zuckerberg.

"But we believe everyone deserves to be connected."

Internet as Human Right?

In the document, Zuckerberg frames Internet access as a human right in an unusual way. It is not explicitly tied to freedom of speech or assembly or any other traditional human right.

Instead, it's framed in economic terms. Internet access, Zuckerberg argues, is essential in moving from resource-based to knowledge-based economies. Benefits of the Internet, unlike agriculture or energy, are not directly governed by scarcity. Instead of depleting the Earth's resources while fighting over what's left, Zuckerberg argues that an Internet-driven knowledge economy can potentially overcome this zero-sum arithmetic, creating more benefits and deeper connections for everyone.

However, if the benefits to everyone everywhere are clear, why doesn't a fully global wireless Internet network already exist? There are substantial technical, social, and political challenges that need to be overcome, almost all of them centered on reducing the cost of Internet connectivity.

Zuckerberg's Plan

The first goal is to make mobile data technically more efficient. If applications use less data and less computing power, that makes it possible for less-expensive phones and infrastructure to do more. It reduces the cost to the end user and the service provider, and allows for millions or billions more people to get on the Internet without choking the infrastructure.

Zuckerberg's vision is to provide a two-tier mobile data system. One tier would provide basic Internet connectivity to wireless phones for free or close to free. Messaging, search engines, Wikipedia, and yes, social networks like Facebook would be in that tier because they are not too data intensive.

The full multimedia universe of the smartphone world would trigger payments similar to a data plan in the U.S.

This is largely an engineering problem that can be worked on through hardware and software. Zuckerberg lists efforts Facebook is already making to address these issues. It's also why Facebook is partnering with chipmakers Qualcomm and MediaTek; mobile phone giants Samsung, Nokia, and Ericsson; and the web browser company Opera Software.

Together those companies have deep technical expertise and billions of dollars, which they will need because the other plank of Zuckerberg's proposal is expensive.

Zuckerberg and Internet.org want access to the "white space" wireless spectrum, which is owned and auctioned by governments. Because of its inherent scarcity and heavy demand from the telecommunications industry, it is hugely expensive. In particular, there is a drive to reallocate some of the existing spectrum adjacent to television signals for wireless data use.

Zuckerberg stops just short of saying that he wants this spectrum for free, or close to it. Instead, he diplomatically discusses ways the spectrum could be used more efficiently and how governments and businesses can work together to make this happen.

Another problem is that while credit infrastructure is common and interoperable in the parts of the world saturated with the Internet, it is much less so elsewhere. In most of the world, data and voice plans are prepaid, in part because credit cards and continuous billing aren't common.

Here Zuckerberg proposes that Facebook can fill the gap, providing a continuous account and identity to customers of wireless companies by linking their two accounts. Facebook doesn't necessarily act as the bank in the sense of loaning or guaranteeing money or managing the transaction, but it would enable a different kind of long-term relationship between provider and customer that might encourage contract and other forms of postpaid payments.

It would also effectively make Facebook the payment and identity passport for those users, bypassing other companies that might wish to provide the same service and securing Facebook's central role in the net-connected lives of billions of people.

Cisco projects that mobile e-commerce will be the fastest-growing Internet service for consumers, going from 560 million users in 2012 to 2.6 billion in 2017. Facebook certainly wants to be part of that growth.

The Skepticism of Bill Gates

This entire enterprise could be criticized as either a publicity stunt long on PR-friendly promises and short on long-term commitments, or as a shameless land grab by Facebook and other powerful technology companies using a philanthropic veneer to gain a foothold in parts of the world they haven't been able to penetrate. One could also say that it ignores much more serious global problems and has a too-rosy view of the Internet's benefits.

In a recent interview, Microsoft chairman and foundation philanthropist Bill Gates criticized Google's efforts to bring Internet connectivity to the underdeveloped world on all of these fronts. Referencing Google's project to float broadband transmitters on balloons, Gates said, "When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you."

Gates also implied that Google's efforts lacked commitment, not just effectiveness. "Google started out saying they were going to do a broad set of things," he said. "They hired Larry Brilliant [to lead a philanthropic wing called Google.org], and they got fantastic publicity. And then they shut it all down. Now they're just doing their core thing. Fine. But the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor."

Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Internet.org writes on its website, "No one should have to choose between access to the Internet and food or medicine."

Thinking in Billions

One could say that Zuckerberg's proposal with Internet.org is simply practical. It's framed from top to bottom in terms of benefits not just to users but also to the industry, not as philanthropy but as business. The fact that there would be concrete long-term benefits for Facebook and the other partners in the group is a sign that they're serious about seeing it through.

Finally, once you step outside the impossible and absurd cases—the hot-air balloon overlooking a village devastated by malaria, or the lengths one would have to go to offer a wireless connection to every single one of the more than seven billion people on Earth—and think instead about the already growing digital populations of the global south, the emerging middle classes in places like Brazil, Indonesia, and Nigeria, the project comes into a much clearer focus.

Thinking in billions is a perfect way to reach millions. Suppose that Internet.org and related efforts could make wireless connectivity much cheaper for hundreds of millions of the 2.3 billion who already have some limited access, sending their usage skyrocketing.

Then suppose it gives cheap or free Internet access for the first time to hundreds of millions more who already have rich access to mobile telephone networks but no easy way to pay for data. That would transform the Internet. And it very well could transform the world.

Follow Timothy Carmody on Twitter and Google+.

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