Facebook For All

Increasing Internet access around the world was one of the hot stories of the week. Observers wondered, however, if all the smoke really indicates there's a fire to connect everyone to the Internet.

On August 21, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of Internet.org, a partnership with the goal of making Internet access available to the next 5 billion people. Today, just over one-third of the world’s population (2.7 billion people) have access to the Internet and Internet adoption is growing by less than 9% each year. Internet.org aims to make access available to the two-thirds of the world population who are not yet connected.

Internet.org members include Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung. They’ve pledged to develop joint projects, share knowledge, and mobilize industry and governments to bring the world online. Down the line, the partnership is expected to expand to include nonprofit organizations, academics and other experts. They will focus on three challenges:

  1. Making access affordable: Developing and adopting tools that make mobile connectivity more affordable and decrease the cost of delivering data. Mobile operators will play a central role. The goal is to cut the cost of providing mobile Internet services to 1 percent of its current level within five to 10 years by improving the efficiency of Internet networks and mobile phone software.
  2. Using data more efficiently: Investing in tools that reduce the amount of data required to use most apps and Internet experiences. Facebook is already working on techniques to reduce the average amount of data used by its Android mobile app from the current 12 megabytes a day to 1 megabyte without users noticing.
  3. Helping business drive access: Developing sustainable business models and services and testing new models that align incentives for mobile operators, device manufacturers, and developers to provide more affordable access than has previously been possible. Here the group hopes to allow phone companies to provide simple services like e-mail, search and social networks for little or no charge. In addition, the partnership wants to localize services and enable more languages on mobile devices.

The coalition partners have begun trying new ways of reducing the data charges paid by cellphone customers while still enabling phone makers and carriers to make money. However, the partnership does not plan to tackle some thorny infrastructure issues that are huge barriers in the developing world, particularly the long-distance transmission of data to far-flung places.

How much will the efforts cost? Zuckerberg says he's already invested more than $1 billion in his mission to get people connected, and he's "hoping to do a lot more."

“We’re focused on it more because we think it’s something good for the world,” said Zuckerberg, “rather than something that is going to be really amazing for our profits.” He added, "Connectivity is a human right." "If we really just wanted to focus on making money, the first billion people who are already on Facebook have way more money than the next five or six billion people combined," Zuckerberg said. "It's not fair, but it's the way that it is. And, we just believe that everyone deserves to be connected, and on the Internet, so we're putting a lot of energy towards this."

While the announcement has received a positive response for its laudable goal, it has also been looked at with a critical eye.

The effort is a reflection of how tech companies are trying to meet Wall Street’s demands for growth by attracting customers beyond saturated markets in the United States and Europe, even if they have to help build services and some of the infrastructure in poorer, less digitally sophisticated parts of the world. Companies have little choice but to look overseas for growth. Facebook already claims more than 1 billion users worldwide, and its growth rate in the West has slowed in recent years, as there are fewer people left to join the social network in the developed world. More than half of Americans already use Facebook at least once a month, for instance, and usage in the rest of the developed world is similarly heavy. There is nearly one active cellphone for every person on earth, making expansion a challenge for carriers and phone makers. Poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America present the biggest opportunity to reach new customers — if companies can figure out how to get people there online at low cost.

Expanding access to undeveloped countries will be good business for a variety of companies including Facebook, Zuckerberg acknowledged, while stressing that "everyone will benefit from the increased knowledge, experience and progress we make from having everyone connected to the Internet."

Michuki Mwangi, regional development manager for Africa at the Internet Society, a nonprofit group that has long worked to expand global Internet access, said the continent sorely lacked local interconnection points, forcing most requests for content like YouTube videos to be routed through Europe at high cost. Creating more connection points would require navigating a thicket of government interests and powerful incumbents. But at the very least, the group would like Facebook and Google to put copies of their content on a greater number of African servers to deliver it more quickly and cheaply, something that both companies say they are considering.

Headlines favorite Stacey Higginbotham suggests that if we start with the larger problem of lowering the cost of mobile data for the carriers at an infrastructure level (rather than just shifting those costs), there are several elements to deal with: from the right equipment to the laws of physics. A mobile network has highly specialized gear in data centers and out at tower sites that communicates data over licensed airwaves. Higginbotham argues that to lower their costs, the operators need to take a page from the webscale players’ book and build out cheaper gear that’s open. Higginbotham also warns that in developing countries, spectrum auctions are a large source of government revenue, carrier expense and controversy. Perhaps the answer, Higginbotham suggests, is to take carriers out of the equation. Like Google’s fiber experiment, couldn’t Facebook make a big, bold bet on infrastructure to show the world how different (and better) things could be? Through white space broadband, microwave, peer-to-peer networking and laying its own fiber, Facebook could build out networks that might take over some of the function that current mobile networks offer.

In the Los Angeles Times, Chris O'Brien writes that the initiative is noteworthy because it raises some important issues about the way the Internet potentially divides us socially and economically, a subject that all too rarely gets discussed. He predicts the effort is likely to fall short of its goals for the simple reason that it fails to recognize the complexity of reasons that people don't use the Internet. Zuckerberg's plan focuses on the technical and financial challenges that limit access to the Internet. The problem is that access is not the only thing that stops people from using the Internet.

The Benton Foundation has been working with Senior Service America, Inc. (SSAI) to tackle the issue of relevance among low-income seniors who are non-Internet users. We’ve learned a great deal from Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) projects and SSAI’s own Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) on various training methodologies that take advantage of peer coaching and self-paced learning, rather than or in addition to classroom and computer center settings. But how do we get people “to the table” to see what they’re missing? We’re thinking that one-on-one ‘tasting sessions” may be one answer. So we’re experimenting with this approach, thanks to the cooperation of public housing authority representatives in a nearby Maryland county. SSAI’s manager of research Bob Harootyan estimates that seniors 65 years of age and older comprise 51% of this nation’s offline population, based on the Pew Internet & American Life Project Spring Tracking Survey, May 2013. Clearly, initiatives like Internet.org and others should pay special attention to reaching this segment of our population.

“Connecting and engaging everyone in this country to 21st century communications technology is daunting enough, given the economic and geographic challenges,” said Benton Senior Advisor Cecilia Garcia. “So, it’s hard to imagine how Mark Zuckerberg’s new global initiative will work on its own.”

Nonprofit groups that have been focused on bridging the global digital divide have reported that such efforts inevitably run into problems including economics, culture, education and corruption. These groups have found that even when access is available and affordable, it can still be a struggle to persuade people to take advantage of it. In the US, for instance, scholars and government officials have found that issues such as race, class and education can be difficult to overcome.

A Department of Commerce report, "Exploring the Digital Nation," released in June found that 30% of U.S. households still did not use the Internet at home. According to the report, there are disparities in Internet usage by race and education. Someone who went to college and makes at least $50,000 annually is far more likely to use the Internet. "While that gap of digitally disconnected households has continued to shrink in recent years, households reported three primary reasons for not using the Internet where they live: They do not need or are not interested, the Internet is too expensive, or they lack adequate computing equipment," the report said.

Writing for The Atlantic, Rebecca Greenfield points out that what hasn’t gotten much discussion is what benefit the 4 billion people Facebook hopes to connect will get from all this. Greenfield looks at a similar call from Henry Ford years ago to pave America’s roads -- to make a part of the world more "open and connected" while also aligning quite nicely with Ford's profits. More roads meant more cars. Then again, that halted the mass-transit movement in this country.

Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal Research, said Zuckerberg's announcement seemed more geared toward generating positive publicity for Facebook and honing its relationships with governments around the world. Not only was there a lack of financial detail in terms of how much money Facebook would invest, but the company mainly made the announcement through mainstream news organizations rather than financial ones such as CNBC. "You can almost see this through the lens of PR," Wieser said. "And through the lens of relationships they need to maintain with government entities. They are trying to make a statement. The statement is that we think all people should have access to the Internet. And we have some fellow travelers. Now let's go talk about it on CNN."

For Facebook’s Zuckerberg, the formation of the coalition is yet another way in which he is trying to position himself as an industry leader. He has been speaking out more forcefully than other tech executives on topics like immigration overhaul,(1) which the industry sees as critical to its hiring needs. With Internet.org, he is laying out a philosophy that tries to pair humanitarian goals with the profit motive. “The Internet is such an important thing for driving humanity forward, but it’s not going to build itself,” he said. “Ultimately, this has to make business sense on some time frame that people can get behind.” Zuckerberg told CNN, “I think there are some things in life that if you believe it is such a big problem, you just stick your neck out and try to do it. A lot of people think it’s going to be really challenging to connect 5 billion people, too.”

Of course, Internet.org is not the only effort to expand Internet access either globally or here in the U.S. Google, for example, began a program with phone carriers last year that offers wireless users in some developing countries free access to Gmail, search and the first page clicked through from a search’s results. Google is also reaching for the sky with Project Loon, an attempt to beam Internet access down to earth from plastic balloons floating more than 11 miles in the atmosphere. Altruism is likely a factor in the Internet-for-all initiatives. But there's a strong business case, too: As the gateway to the Web for billions more people, each company could develop a loyal base of new users. They don't want to share.

Closer to home, Eric Jaffe wrote this week for The Atlantic that the vast majority of Americans have access to very basic Internet service. But too many rural residents lack even minimal access; too many big cities lack the competition that would create world-class service; and for whatever reason — be it access, cost, quality, or something else — 100 million Americans don't subscribe to broadband service at all. Jaffe’s proposal: build a National Internet System under the National Highway System, an idea offered by the New America Foundation back in 2009. Since 90 percent of the country lives within 5 miles of a national highway, and since utility infrastructure is already planted along highway rights-of-way, bundling the network is the simplest and surest way for service to reach everyone.

In Baltimore, the city government is considering building its own broadband fiber network, on which it would lease capacity to Internet service providers, but also is closely examining what might be achieved through Comcast, which currently provides cable and broadband in the city through a cable franchise agreement that expires at the end of 2016. Perhaps the threat that the city could build its own network could be just what the city needs to get Comcast or other network operators to rethink their broadband investment plans there. Could we see other cities using a similar strategy?

At the national level, the Federal Communications Commission this week announced that up to 600,000 homes and small businesses that lack broadband will get access as a result of additional support from the FCC’s Connect America Fund. Providers in 44 states and Puerto Rico requested over $385 million from the Fund – which will be matched with hundreds of millions of their own dollars in many areas – to quickly expand broadband infrastructure to rural communities in every region of the nation. Deployment must be completed within three years.

For this year’s program the FCC made some modifications aimed at increasing carrier participation. For example, last year carriers were only eligible to receive funding for customers that cannot get service at rates of 768 kbps downstream. This year funding was opened up to customers that cannot get service at rates of 3 Mbps downstream – albeit at a lower level of support per line. Ultimately the FCC plans to move to a more detailed cost model that will offer carriers different funding levels for different unserved lines based on conditions such as population density and terrain. If carriers decline that funding, the unserved lines will be the subject of a reverse auction that will enable competitors to bid to deliver service, with funding going to the carriers that offer to provide service for the lowest cost.

Who said you should never launch a new product in August? In all, it was an interesting week for universal Internet access, to say the least. The proof of Internet.org, and other efforts of course, will be if they can address Internet adoption from soup to nuts: technical and financial challenges that limit access to the Internet, yes, but helping motivate new consumers to adopt services they never thought they needed. Is a free Facebook account enough to motivate someone to take on a mobile data plan? We’ll be waiting to see.

1.) Zuckerberg this year founded an advocacy group, FWD.us, with other high-profile technology executives to push for changes to the immigration system. The group, headed by a Zuckerberg college friend, faced backlash over early ads that backed conservative lawmakers on positions like oil drilling and President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

By Kevin Taglang.