Facebook leads effort to get whole world online

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Posted: Sunday, August 25, 2013 12:00 am

MENLO PARK, Calif. — About one of every seven people in the world uses Facebook. Now, Mark Zuckerberg, its co-founder and chief executive, wants to make a play for the rest — including the 4billion or so who lack Internet access.

Facebook plans an effort aimed at drastically cutting the cost of delivering basic Internet services on mobile phones, particularly in developing countries, where Facebook and other tech companies need to find new users. Half a dozen of the world’s tech giants, including Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm and Ericsson, have agreed to work with the company on the initiative, which they call Internet.org.

The companies intend to accomplish their goal in part by simplifying phone applications so they run more efficiently and by improving the components of phones and networks so that they transmit more data while using less battery power.

For 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 on topics like immigration overhaul, 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.”

But the effort is also 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.

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 from plastic balloons floating more than 11 miles in the atmosphere.

Twitter, which is preparing to offer shares to the public in an initial stock offering, has struck its own deals with about 250 cellphone companies in more than 100 countries to offer some free Twitter access and worked to make sure its service is easy to use on even the cheapest cellphones.

These companies have little choice but to look overseas for growth. 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.

The immediate goals of the new coalition are 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. The group also hopes to develop business models that would allow phone companies to provide simple services such as email, search and social networks for little or no charge.

While that sounds far less exciting than, say, Google’s idea of delivering the Internet by balloon, Zuckerberg says small efforts can add up to big changes.

“No one company can really do this by itself,” he said.

But Google is likely to remain outside the group.

Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft and co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recently suggested that Project Loon and similar projects were not the best use of resources to help people in the poorest nations.

“When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that,” he said in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Zuckerberg acknowledged that basic health care is essential but said that “if you can afford a phone, I think it would be really good for you to have access to the Internet.”

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