More than two-thirds of the world's population – some 5 billion people – do not have Internet access, but Mark Zuckerberg's coalition of Internet companies has a plan to connect the unconnected.
The Facebook founder and chief executive announced a plan to make Internet more affordable by lowering the cost of data per megabyte. The measures were part of a ten-page plan entitled “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” that was laid out by Internet.org, a coalition of telecommunication companies that includes Ericsson, Mediatek, Opera software, Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm, and Mr. Zuckerberg’s own Facebook.
One of the main problems with current Internet connections is that people simply use too much data, Zuckerberg explains in the report. In developed countries, consumers pay for unlimited data plans, and as a result many frequently use apps that have little or no data usage optimization. Making apps more efficient not only makes them more marketable in developing countries, where users typically pay per download, it also incentivizes those offline to get online – the cost of social connectivity is no longer prohibitive.
Facebook has already addressed this issue to a certain extent with its Facebook for Everyphone app, which targets users in emerging markets. However, Zuckerberg writes there is a great deal of potential for both cellphones and Internet companies. The majority of Internet users in developing countries use mobile devices to connect to the Internet.
Therein lies the carrot of Internet.org’s plan: it would also provide a major boost to Internet companies that need to expand outside of already connected developed economies.
Most of the countries that have widespread Internet access are also home to individuals that are already connected to social networking sites such as Facebook. The United States is Facebook’s largest market with more than 160 million users, but the next largest markets are Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Mexico with more than 58 million, 56 million, 43 million, and 38 million users, respectively, according to a recent study by Jana, a technology research group based in Boston.
Internet penetration has increased at 25 percent a year in 30 “aspiring” countries, compared with 5 percent in developed countries, according to a recent survey by the consulting firm McKinsey in New York.
The potential for growth – not just for Facebook, but also for the entire global consumer economy – seems to lie in the developing world.
Google is also making forays into these untapped Internet markets with its Google Loon project. In June, the Internet company began testing a system of balloons with special Internet antennas in New Zealand. The balloons fly 12 miles above Earth, twice as high as airplanes and rain clouds, bounced by the wind and steered by on-ground controls. Users can connect to the balloon using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from balloon to balloon, then to the global Internet, according to the Google Loon website.
Getting more people connected to the Internet, it seems, has become a new trendy topic in Silicon Valley. However, Microsoft’s Bill Gates is skeptical of the importance the companies are placing on connecting the developing world.
“When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that [Google Loon] balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” Mr. Gates said in an interview with Bloomberg earlier in August. The first priority in developing countries should be health, not connectivity, said Gates.
Both Project Loon and Internet.org are still in the early stages of plotting how they will increase the world’s connection. But it seems like only a matter of time before the 5 billion unconnected of the world could find themselves with a cellphone and a Wi-Fi signal.