SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitious plan to provide Internet access to billions of people around the globe will face challenges that extend far beyond solving technical and financial issues.
In announcing a partnership dubbed Internet.org, Zuckerberg outlined several technology-based strategies for reducing costs in order to extend affordable Internet service to 5 billion people around the globe who are not currently online.
But 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 U.S., for instance, scholars and government officials have found that issues such as race, class and education can be difficult to overcome.
In a U.S. Department of Commerce report released in June called “Exploring the Digital Nation,” the agency 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.
In the U.S. National Broadband Plan, released by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010, there were many initiatives designed to entice those who expressed a lack of interest to go online, including the creation of a Digital Literacy Corps.
“To get where we want to be, we need to think about the connectivity, but also the applications and the devices and the incentives to use it,” then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a 2011 interview. “If you focus on any one of those, it won’t work. There’s no single challenge. They don’t lend themselves to pushing a button and saying that works.”
Those issues only become more complex abroad. In addition to education, race and class, government corruption and dysfunctional regulatory systems can become major barriers. Those issues were singled out in a report released in April by the World Economic Forum that highlighted what it said was the “lack of progress in bridging the digital divide.”
Still, Zuckerberg says he felt compelled to tackle an issue he says is crucial.
“I’m focused on this because I believe it is one of the greatest challenges of our generation,” Zuckerberg said in a white paper Facebook released Monday night.
“The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be pro¿table for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.”
Facebook is not the first U.S. tech firm to address this issue. Microsoft has a number of efforts underway to expand global Internet access, including an initiative announced this summer with 23 partners to expand access to wireless technologies. And Google has launched “Project Loon,” an experiment to deliver Internet access by floating balloons that beam wireless signals over remote areas.
But even more than these other companies, Facebook is under pressure to continue to grow a user base that has already crossed 1 billion, almost half the people on the Internet. Having saturated markets such as the U.S. and Europe, Facebook already has a number of initiatives in place to make its service more widely available in emerging economies, such as Facebook Zero, a text-only version of Facebook in Africa.
Zuckerberg said the goal of his group, Internet.org, a partnership between Facebook and Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, is to bring Internet access to “the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected, and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today.”
Zuckerberg said in the white paper that if left to market forces, the march of progress would be painfully slow.
“Today, only 2.7 billion people — a little more than one-third of the world’s population — have Internet access,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Even more surprising, Internet adoption is growing by less than 9% each year, which is slow considering how early we are in its development and that it is expected to slow further.”
The group’s initiatives include making data centers more efficient, boosting existing wireless signals and making apps that use less data. Part of the strategy calls for narrowly defining which “basic Internet services” should be available for free and which ones (for example, video streaming) ought to require a paid plan.
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 details 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.”