Facebook CEO's Internet Crusade Hopes To Bring Billions Online

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has teamed up with other tech giants to pursue the goal of providing Internet service to five billion people in the developing world. The group, called Internet.org, says data can be used more efficiently and participating partners can work cooperatively to make access to the web affordable in emerging economies. Zuckerberg makes the case on his Facebook page for how a global Internet infrastructure can be created. But the document doesn't have tangible commitments from Facebook or other participating companies.

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Facebook wants to help connect the entire world to the Internet. Today, two and a half billion people already have access and almost half of them are on Facebook. That leaves nearly five billion people who are not on the Internet at all.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and CEO unveiled a partnership today called Internet.org, and it has an audacious goal to bring many of those five billion online in the next decade through their mobile phones.

For more, NPR's Steve Henn joins us now. And, Steve, who besides Facebook is involved here and how exactly would it work?

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Well, in addition to Facebook, some mobile phone makers like Nokia and Samsung, have signed up, as well as Ericsson which makes mobile networking equipment, and big mobile phone chip makers including QUALCOMM are on board, as well.

Basically, the goal here is to radically reduce the cost of getting online for people in the developing world. Right now, there are roughly five billion active mobile phones on the planet, but the vast majority are not connected to the Internet. And that's because data plans are far too expensive for most of the world's population to afford. So, even if the cost of a Smartphone drops dramatically in the next few years, that's not going to matter if data makes that phone basically useless.

So these companies are committing to working together to push the cost of basic Internet access on the phone to less than a dollar a month.

CORNISH: Give us more detail here. Are the companies committing to make big investments in research or essentially are they saying they're going to help subsidize connections in the developing world?

HENN: Well, there are not really any formal spending commitments here. And the proposal doesn't involve subsidizing Internet connections at all. The idea is that these companies will work collaboratively to create a mobile data network that's so efficient that it's commercially viable and profitable in some of the poorest parts of the world. Now, to make that happen, mobile networks have to become much more efficient at moving data around the globe.

The phones that connect to these networks have to use less data, as well. And the app designers, like Facebook, have to design programs and services that sip data instead of swill it. The problem is big enough that no single player in this industry can solve it acting alone. So all these firms are saying that they're going to work together to find technical solutions that leverage each other's expertise.

CORNISH: Why is this the necessary way to do it? I mean, Facebook wants more people to join Facebook, obviously. And Samsung and Nokia probably want more customers, right, in the developing world? But why not just let business and capitalism run its course?

HENN: Well, you know, that's a great question. And maybe without any sort of organized push in this direction, you know, people would come online all over the world in the next decade anyway. But right now, a lot of the research and development and innovation in this space is aimed at consumers in the developed world.

I mean, if you think about the hottest new mobile app this year, like Vine, it shares video. The apps are aimed at folks with almost unlimited data plans. And telecom companies in the U.S. and Europe make more money if we use more data on our phones, not less. So the business models that drive the industry right now aren't pushing in the direction of using less data. This effort really is to try to create and promote business models that would also work in the developing world.

CORNISH: What would that look like?

HENN: Well, one idea that Facebook has experimented with, in places like the Philippines and Mexico, is to cut deals with telecom providers and phone makers where a certain amount of basic Internet access is free with your phone. So, let's say, Facebook would be free. The idea is that would make buying that phone more attractive. And, as a consumer, you'd get in the habit of going online. You know, that ends up boosting phone sales in the short-term. In the long run, it gets more consumers hooked on the Internet. So Facebook wants to expand that.

CORNISH: And, of course, if I'm cynical, I'm saying Facebook wants to be a gateway drug for the Internet?

HENN: Yeah, right. But these guys argue that in an information economy, the Internet is a necessity.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thank you so much.

HENN: My pleasure.

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