Facebook to bring free mobile Internet access to Zambia

Facebook announced Thursday the Internet.org app, which will provide basic Internet services for free in places that have traditionally had little Internet access. 

Facebook announced Thursday a new app that will provide free mobile Internet services to people in Zambia, with plans to eventually expand to more countries.

Facebook may be simply a social network to some, but to residents in the African country Zambia, it will soon be an Internet provider. 

That service will come through a new app Facebook announced Thursday called Internet.org. Its goal is to provide free basic Internet services to people in places that have traditionally faced barriers to Internet adoption. 

In a blog post, Facebook product management director Guy Rosen explained that while more than 85 percent of the world's population live near cellular coverage, only 30 percent of the world's population is actually connected to the Internet. A key reason for this is the charges that can easily be racked up when connecting to the Internet on a mobile device. 

"The most expensive part about owning a smartphone and being connected to the internet isn’t the smartphone; it’s the data," said Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at Mobile World Congress back in February. 

The Internet services offered by this app – free of data charges – will include access to basic health and employment information, in addition to more general information available on the Web through services such as Google Search and Wikipedia

Facebook is partnering with wireless operator Airtel to offer this service. Airtel will not be charging Facebook for bandwidth in this partnership. Still, as Reuters reports, Airtel will likely benefit once users are exposed to these services and decide to pay for broader Internet access, as these services will only be provided to Airtel customers. Moreover, while the services offered in the app are free, links that bring users to other sites will require users to pay for those additional wireless data charges, Reuters notes. 

Over the past four years, Facebook has been partnering with wireless providers to offer easy access to its social network. Now, however, Facebook is also providing users with access to Internet services separate from its own product.

This follows Facebook's announcement in March that it is investing a reported $60 million in drone technology to bring "the next billion" online, a reference to tech companies' race to target people in parts of the world who have not yet begun using the Internet. Many of these "next billion" live in countries in Asia and Africa. Companies that bring people online can in turn acquire more customers for their respective Internet services. 

And yet, as Mat Honan points out in Wired, creating an Internet specifically geared toward customers in less developed countries could establish a dangerous precedent – an "Internet for poor people." He writes: 

Giving free access to people who could not previously afford it is a Very Good Thing. Undoubtedly. No question. But an internet for poor people that in any way provides less access than the full-throated internet those of us reading this enjoy? That’s troubling. It’s another digital divide.

While this service is beginning in Zambia, it will soon expand to other parts of the world and be available via other wireless operators. 

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