Zuckerberg Unveils Plan To Expand Global Internet Access

Facebook founder's latest project, called Internet.org, aims to bring Internet access to everyone by lowering costs, simplifying data plans.

Kristin Burnham

August 21, 2013

4 Min Read
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More than 1.15 billion people use Facebook today and about 2.7 billion people have access to the Internet. But that's not enough for Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg -- he wants that number to grow. Tuesday he announced plans on his Facebook page to bring Internet access to the billions of people who lack it through an initiative called Internet.org.

Tech giants Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung are partners in Internet.org, which aims to drastically cut the costs of delivering basic Internet services on mobile phones, particularly in developing countries where Facebook and other tech companies are seeking new users.

In a 10-page document, Zuckerberg discusses the state of the Internet, why connectivity is an important problem for the world, the major issues that need to be solved and his plans to accomplish the goal.

The cost of smartphone data access is the main hindrance in bringing Internet to more people, Zuckerberg said. Although the cost of smartphones is dropping, data plans in the U.S. cost about $1,500 per year -- a figure that the 4 billion feature phone users across the globe can't afford.

[ Why let Facebook decide what you see? Take control of your news feed: read 5 Ways to Customize Facebook News Feed. ]

Facebook has taken steps to better reach the feature phone market. Last month, it announced that its Facebook For Every Phone app garnered more than 100 million monthly users.

Zuckerberg noted other roadblocks to bringing Internet to more people: many people don't have phones; those with could afford a data plan don't understand the need for it because they've never used the Internet; and the global infrastructure required to deliver the Internet is expensive.

Zuckerberg's three-pronged plan focuses on making Internet access affordable by making it more efficient to deliver data, using less data by improving the efficiency of apps. and helping businesses drive Internet access by developing a new model to get people online. Here's a breakdown of its plan.

Focus on affordability. To make Internet access more affordable, Zuckerbergs says the industry needs to focus on improvements that could increase the capacity of networks, which will cause the cost per megabyte to decrease dramatically. Facebook's Open Compute Project has been working on such solutions, he said.

"In addition to servers and data centers, there is now a project to create an open network switch design for Internet data centers. Anything that makes networks more efficient will ultimately increase the efficiency of delivering data and bring down costs for people worldwide," Zuckerberg wrote.Use less data. To encourage less data use, Zuckerberg said Facebook is focused on enabling caching, data compression and other simple efficiency optimizations. These are steps that the industry can take on, too. "People with feature phones are very cost-conscious, so one of the most important things we've done has been to make this experience use as little data as possible by caching data effectively so we can be very careful about which data we ever have to request from our servers," he wrote.

Data compression and efficiency optimization also play an important role. Implementing compression in large-scale apps or developing services that you route all your data through for compression would yield up to five times the savings, he said. Frequently used apps should generally be forced to consume less data to begin with. Facebook plans to reduce its Android app from using about 12MB per day to 1MB per day just by enacting these steps, he said.

Help businesses drive access. Because most people who haven't grown up with the Internet don't understand data plans or data usage, Zuckerberg says businesses need to be creative in how it offers Internet access.

"The Internet and data are abstract concepts. Most people don't want data; they want the services you can use it for," he said. "However, if you ask the same person if they want Facebook access, they're more likely to say yes."Zuckerberg says this can be achieved by zero-rating data -- which Facebook has already done for developing nations -- and improving credit infrastructure to enable businesses to make longer-term investments in their customers.

Charlene Li, principle analyst and founder of Altimeter Group, says that Zuckerberg's plan is ambitious but feasible. "From the technical side, their plan is completely doable. The reason something like this may not work is because it's not sustainable over time," Li said. "But all of the players involved [in Internet.org] have a stake in seeing more people use their services, so they'll continue to invest in the project."

The true test, Li said, is how willing Internet.org is to accept outside partners. "What happens when other organizations want to participate, such as Microsoft? Right now Facebook is the only service involved. I'd like to see what happens when others are interested in joining," she said.

About the Author(s)

Kristin Burnham

Senior Editor, InformationWeek.com

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