Mark Zuckerberg’s plan (PDF) to lead a coalition of technology companies in an expansion of Internet access in the developing world is good news. It’s a laudable goal, of course, and why wouldn’t we want someone with Zuckerberg’s influence and resources to declare it a priority? (Even if Bill Gates makes fun of the propensity for Internet giants to plot digital uplift for the developing world.)
Zuckerberg’s announcement on Tuesday acknowledges that his Internet.org initiative is in an early stage, calling it a “rough vision” or “rough plan” with details expected to be in flux. That’s good. Because in its current form, Internet.org is silent on some of the major barriers to expanding access today while proposing some pretty self-serving business models. There’s no reason to doubt Zuckerberg’s sincerity—he’s been beating the drum on the value of connecting people for years. But his high-minded announcement leaves a few major questions unanswered.
Who’s going to build new networks? Internet.org’s plan deals largely with improving the performance of cellular data networks, which presumably will be a major way to connect developing countries to the Internet. Zuckerberg claims the technology industry should be capable of delivering data 100 times more efficiently within 5 to 10 years, in part by bringing down the cost of doing so over the networks and making applications that use less data.
This is fine, but it won’t work unless there are data networks. Zuckerberg acknowledges that building out and maintaining infrastructure will cost tens of billions of dollars every year, and that’s after paying for the acquisition of land and the electricity bills of power cell sites. Yet Internet.org doesn’t mention any plans for building out this infrastructure. Even in the U.S., the companies that are subsidized to provide Internet access to the least profitable corners of the country have to be dragged into these agreements kicking and screaming.
A strategy for figuring out how to provide connectivity to the developing world will be at least as difficult. There are technical and regulatory barriers to developing countries taking full advantage of the potential of their existing networks. For instance, in Africa local Internet activity between separate networks often goes through Europe, either because the African countries lack local Internet-exchange points or because monopolies require all international traffic to go through a single network.
It’s not even clear that cellular networks alone will be capable of supporting sufficiently robust Internet activity. While we live in a wireless world, an increasing amount of business activity is relying on data-intensive applications better suited for wired broadband.
Isn’t this what technology companies would be doing anyway? Facebook (FB) has already been making versions of its services that work on feature phones, rather than smartphones, and it suggests ways to connect phones by Wi-Fi whenever possible so as to take the load off of cellular networks. Zuckerberg claims the company has spent more than $1 billion getting people more connected globally. This is worthwhile—and it’s also what a successful technology company does. Facebook should make apps that run more efficiently because it wants its products to be more pleasurable for users, whether in California or the Congo. Other companies are working on data-compression techniques and cheaper phones all the time out of pure self-interest—otherwise they’d lose out to their competitors.
Are these plans good for everyone, or just good for Facebook? Zuckerberg argues, correctly, that building out the Internet will require the cooperation of companies that are going to be looking to make a profit, and he even lays out some ideas about how to develop new business models. People won’t know that they need a data connection, he says, but they know they want Facebook. So Facebook and some other basic services should be given preferential treatment to get people excited about getting online.
One idea he proposes is “zero-rating,” where Facebook, messaging, search engines, and Wikipedia could be accessed over a data network at no charge. Once people became accustomed to using such services, they would be more willing to pay for data plans in order to access others. Such plans could be illegal in the U.S. because of net-neutrality regulations, which look to make sure no particular service has an inherent advantage at the infrastructural level of the Internet. Depending on how the plan was structured, an African Zuckerberg would likely have trouble building out a local Facebook competitor because people would have to pay to use it.
“We’re looking for these developing countries to not just be Internet consumers, but Internet creators,” says Karen Rose, senior director of strategic development and business planning for the Internet Society, a group focused on expanding Internet access worldwide. “In anything we do, we want to make sure that there’s room for permission-less innovation.”
Facebook, logically, is interested in getting its hands on an increasing amount of Internet activity, and it wants that activity to take place on its own terms. For instance, the social network notes a shortcoming of local wireless service providers that sell data plans as prepaid cards across Africa, rather than postpaid plans more common in the U.S. With prepaid plans, service providers may know little about their customers, a serious disadvantage from the perspective of a data-hungry company like Facebook. The solution? Encourage service providers to learn more about their customers by having them link their phone activity to their Facebook accounts.