While Google is moving to bring free Internet to the masses with satellites, Facebook is taking a different approach to making Internet access available to the 5 billion people who are not connected. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has launched Internet.org with a who's who of technology giants including Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, Opera and MediaTek.
According to Zuckerberg's research, only 2.7 billion people -- just over one-third of the world's population -- have access to the Internet. What's more, Internet adoption is growing by less than 9 percent each year. That's slow considering how early we are in its development. Internet.org aims to make Internet access available to the two-thirds of the world's population who are not yet connected.
"Everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect," Zuckerberg said. "There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making Internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it."
Google, which is also interested in global Internet connectivity, has backed U.K.-based startup O3b Networks in its efforts to launch a global satellite network capable of delivering high-speed Internet connectivity to people living in emerging markets, where the commercial deployment of fiber networks is neither economically viable nor practical.
The founding members of Internet.org will develop joint projects, share knowledge, and mobilize industry and governments to bring the world online. The founding companies have a long history of working closely with mobile operators, which are expected to play leading roles within the initiative.
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. But there are three key challenges to driving the vision forward in developing countries: making access affordable; using data more efficiently; and helping businesses drive access.
To address these challenges, partners will collaborate to develop and adopt technologies that make mobile connectivity more affordable and decrease the cost of delivering data to people worldwide. That may mean lower-cost, higher-quality smartphones. Partners will also invest in tools that reduce the amount of data required to use most apps and Internet experiences and support the development of sustainable new business models and services that make it easier for people to access the Internet.
Worthwhile and Ambitious
We asked Carl Howe, vice president of Research and Data Sciences at the Yankee Group, for his take on Internet.org. He told us the initiative is incredibly worthwhile and ambitious -- an attempt to "wire" the world, with the footnote that most of the technologies the group is using are actually wireless.
"That said, partnerships such as this one historically don't have great track records of accomplishment, simply because the vision isn't the problem," Howe said. "The challenge is finding money to fund the initiative and people to actually do the work. This organization will have to do more than issue press releases to attack this problem."
As Howe sees it, a larger question is whether the cost of connecting 5 billion people is the right priority for that large amount of money. Today's non-Internet connected mobile networks that connect 6.8 billion people cost hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars to build.
"If we assume that Internet-enabling those connections and devices will cost even just $100 billion, that's about three times as much as it would cost to eliminate world hunger, which is estimated by the United Nations to be about $30 billion a year," he said. "Considering that roughly a billion people in the world are considered starving, I suspect those people would consider eating to be a higher priority for the types of investments we are talking about than viewing Facebook pages."