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Will Facebook's 'Free Basics' bring Internet to the three-fifths?

Much of the world has no access to the internet, but Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has announced an update to his program that aims to improve the online experience of users in developing countries.

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    Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington Wednesday. Mr Zuckerberg has announced an update to his program that tries to provide better internet to developing countries.
    Ted S. Warren/Reuters
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The task of getting digital access to the masses remains huge, but one plan by Facebook to bring cheap Internet access to developing countries is looking more viable.

Over half the world's population – 57 percent or 4.2 billion people – still does not have access to the Internet, a report from the Broadband Commission for Digital Development says. The Broadband Commission was launched in 2010 by the United Nations and the International Telecommunication Union. This "stubbornly persistent" gap between the Internet-rich and poor keeps women and rural residents offline. Growth is slowing as companies struggle to get Internet access into geographically hard-to-reach places. The "State of Broadband 2015" report adds that people need not just Internet access, but the skills to use it, in order to reach their potential.

Knowing this deficit of basic Internet access would not help his quest to connect the world virtually, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a plan two years ago to bring the Internet to the three-fifths without it. Facebook's Internet.org program helped one billion people in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America connect with the World Wide Web, according to a statement.

But his plan was controversial and seemed to prove that there is no such thing as free internet. Mr. Zuckerberg announced in July a plan to increase Internet access with a giant drone, but debates on net neutrality continued because Facebook's program offered select content and providers through the free app, leaving it in a "moral grey area," according to VentureBeat.com.

Enhancements and improvements are on the way, though. Zuckerberg announced an update called "Free Basics," according to a statement. Developers have made apps that will work with the Facebook platform so that users can now access 60 more services alongside what Zuckerberg is calling "Free Basics." Many of the new services will be resources for entrepreneurship, health information, and parenting tips.

To address criticism of the initial offerings from India, Facebook's vice-president Chris Daniels spoke with the Economic Times of India. Facebook and the Internet.org plan have a "big role to play in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of India," he said, and the program had given one million people access to health information in the last month alone.

"In April, I went to India and we heard the feedback from the community there that they felt that the platform was not as open as it could be to developers," Mr. Daniels told the Economic Times. "So what we did is we opened up Internet.org so that any developer can develop an application that a person coming online for the very first time can use."

On his Facebook page, Zuckerberg announced the change alongside photos of "Asif Mujhawar, a soybean farmer from rural Maharashtra, India," who has been using the free BabyCenter app from Internet.org for health tips with his two daughters.

Most of the comments on this announcement were positive, though several Indians noted that farmers in Maharashtra probably worried more about putting food on the table than their Internet access. One suspicious user pointed out, "Internet.org is really not FREE, he pays his service provider for using mobile apps!"

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