Facebook (s fb) and a group of partners that includes Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung have launched an initiative called internet.org that aims to bring internet access to everyone in the world.
Here is how the initiative will work at a high level, according to a press release announcing its launch:
The founding members of internet.org — Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung — will develop joint projects, share knowledge, and mobilize industry and governments to bring the world online. These founding companies have a long history of working closely with mobile operators and expect them to play leading roles within the initiative, which over time will also include NGOs, academics and experts as well. Internet.org is influenced by the successful Open Compute Project, an industry-wide initiative that has lowered the costs of cloud computing by making hardware designs more efficient and innovative.
Among the types of efforts they’ll undertake are making access more affordable via less-expensive devices and broader mobile networks; improving the efficiency of data handling at the application, network and server levels; and experimenting with new business models that incentivize carriers and device manufacturers to offer lower prices.
The internet.org press release noted that just more than one-third of the world’s population currently has access to the internet, and that adoption is growing by a mere 9 percent a year.
Increased connectivity: Good for GDP, good for Facebook
A white paper detailing internet.org in more detail (written in first-person point of view — presumably Mark Zuckerberg’s point of view), points to how integral the internet to economies in countries where it’s prevalent. It cites a 2011 McKinsey & Co. study that found, among other things, that the internet has been responsible for 21 percent of GDP growth in developed countries over the past five years; is now a bigger contributor to global GDP than are the agriculture and utility industries; and adds more jobs than it kills. (And they’re popular statistics — I cited the same ones last year in calling out SOPA lobby’s faux concern over jobs.)
Improving the global economy is certainly a laudable goal, although Facebook stands to benefit from this, too. The whitepaper indirectly acknowledges as much:
[M]any people who have never experienced the internet don’t know what a data plan is or why they’d want one. However, most people have heard of services like Facebook and messaging and they want access to them. If we can provide people with access to these services, then they’ll discover other content they want and begin to use and understand the broader internet.
First things first: get them on Facebook! They can figure out the rest later.
Getting a little for yourself while claiming to serve the greater good is nothing new, of course, even in the internet world. Google Fiber and Project Loon are impressive and possibly important efforts, but the end result if they work out it more people searching on Google, watching videos on YouTube and using services like Google TV.
But can it work?
However, if internet.org is going to improve the global economy, or even Facebook’s economy, it actually has to culminate in real, working internet access in some very difficult parts of the world. The problem is that some economies aren’t capitalistic, some governments are corrupt and it’s not uncommon that the two go hand in hand. Getting access to these markets might require some capitulations and dealings that don’t align with the initiative’s utopian vision.
It might even be harder and more nuanced than convincing the U.S. Congress to back immigration reform.
Convincing handset carriers and international carriers to play nice might be tough, too. My colleague Stacey Higginbotham spoke with Facebook Vice President of Engineering Jay Parikh on Tuesday night and, she said, he acknowledged that carriers are excited but still wondering what this will mean of their business models.
Based on the Facebook whitepaper, its initial vision around new business models revolves around a strategy called zero-rating, something Facebook already kind of does in certain countries around its Facebook Zero messaging service. Essentially, the idea goes, people want Facebook and they consume a lot of data using it. Don’t charge them for Facebook data usage, and they’ll be more able to afford phones and data plans that they might not have purchased otherwise.
Facebook and its partners do understand technology
If there’s one area where Facebook and its internet.org partners might be able to make real headway, though, it’s on the technology front — especially around reducing the amount of traffic sent over the network and the amount of data that apps consume. “[W]ith an organized effort,” the whitepaper noted, “we think it is reasonable to expect the overall efficiency of delivering data to increase by 100x in the next 5–10 years.”
That’s probably the most important part of the plan (assuming most parts of the world can get some degree of connectivity). Reducing load on carrier networks should help get them on board, as will potential advances in Open Compute Project technologies that lower the cost of operating those networks. More efficient data consumption means people in developing countries (including those where people have no choice but to buy prepaid data plans on SIM cards because there’s no credit card system in place) can actually benefit from internet access without burning through their allotted data in a day.
With that in mind, internet.org is looking to make advances in fields like caching (both locally on devices and on edge networks), data compression and good, old-fashioned smarter application design. Facebook, for example, noted how it expects to lower the average daily consumption of its Facebook for Android app to 1 megabyte from 12 megabytes. With a special variant in developing countries that’s less photo-intensive, Facebook thinks it could get data usage even lower.
Connectivity is not a human right as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to claim — in fact, it probably ranks well below potable water and free speech on the list of things that should be — but it is increasingly important. The web’s promise goes well beyond social networking and into areas like general information awareness and new paradigms for higher education. If Facebook, Google or anyone can actually deliver universal connectivity at a price point that makes everyone happy, the more power to them.
Color me very cautiously optimistic.