Citing the billions of people worldwide who can't access the Internet, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the leaders of other technology firms are launching an ambitious project to narrow the digital divide Wednesday. The plan focuses on widening access via mobile phones.
"There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy," Zuckerberg says. "Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making Internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it."
To accomplish that goal, a website for the Internet.org project lists areas for possible gains, from a proposal to make smartphones more affordable to a push to make mobile devices work in more languages.
Other ideas include making apps and processes more efficient, so the data costs of using a smartphone are lower, and giving mobile phone providers and phone makers incentives to make their products more affordable.
Their goal is to increase the number of people who use the Internet, which is estimated to be more than 2.7 billion this year, according to the United Nations.
"By reducing the cost and amount of data required for most apps and enabling new business models, Internet.org is focused on enabling the next 5 billion people to come online," according to a new release.
This summer, Google has been testing its own plan to help provide Internet access in areas where such services are rare. Called Loon, the project calls for floating antenna-equipped balloons high into the atmosphere.
The new project is launching with the support of Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung — all of them companies that could eventually profit from the addition of billions of new customers. As smartphone and digital markets in Europe and elsewhere reach a saturation point, developing nations present the biggest chances for growth.
But a push for profits is not the main factor behind the new initiative, Zuckerberg tells The New York Times.
"We're focused on it more because we think it's something good for the world," he says, "rather than something that is going to be really amazing for our profits."
In terms of Internet access, wide disparities exist between different regions and economic tiers. As the "World in 2013" report from the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union states, it's more expensive to get online in a developing country than in a developed one, in relative terms.
Here are some highlights from the report, published in February by the Swiss organization:
- In the developing world, 31 percent of the population is online, compared with 77 percent in the developed world.
- Europe is the region with the highest Internet penetration rate in the world (75 percent), followed by the Americas (61 percent).
- In Africa, 16 percent of people are using the Internet – only half the penetration rate of Asia and the Pacific.
- 90 percent of the 1.1 billion households not connected to the Internet are in the developing world.
- In developing countries, 16 percent fewer women than men use the Internet.
Another finding of that report was that in developing nations, people often pay far less for mobile broadband than for fixed services.
Before it launched the Internet.org project, Facebook's efforts to widen access to the web have included Facebook Zero, a text-only version of its services that has been a hit in Africa. The company has also worked to spread efficient and affordable computing infrastructure through its Open Compute effort.