Monday, 26 August 2013

Mark Zuckerberg's 'rough plan' for the next five billion

By Elaine Chan and Priscilla Chan [CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
In a CNN interview last week Mark Zuckerberg said that “one of the biggest problems of my generation is to get everyone in the world to get Internet access.” He announced a new partnership, that aims to bring Internet access to 'the next 5 billion'. And he has a plan, or as his white paper "Is Connectivity a Human Right?", now published on facebook puts it, 'a rough plan'.

The vision is big and inclusive - its about the rest of us in those parts of the world not usually referred to in Silicon Valley press releases -  something to be welcomed. Zuckerberg was ambiguous as to whether this was a philanthropic or a commercial initiative in the CNN interview - though he tended to focus it as largely the former.  Maybe it could be described as an example of enlightened self-interest: though Zuckerberg claimed that 'the next five billion' may not be a profitable market for Facebook for a long time to come, Facebook's growth in users is now almost entirely dependent on growth in emerging markets and that is being constrained by access. Not necessarily a bad thing if you believe that getting it done matters. If we depend on philanthropy to connect the disconnected, we may wait a very long time. But clarifying this point would be helpful.

There are three areas of activity in the plan that Zuckerberg proposes to bring low cost Internet to those so far not online: 1. Reduce data costs by improving the efficiency of transmitting data between network operators and users. 2. Reduce data costs by reducing applications' data requirements. 3. Develop or expand use of new business models for no or low cost data.

1. Improving efficiency of wireless data transmission

The plan suggests that it may be possible to improve transmission efficiencies by up to ten times in the next decade. Network operators across the world need such efficiencies as the demand for data increases. Facebook's optimism on the opportunities here is encouraging. Also helpful is their support in the white paper for making use of "White Spaces" (something Google also supports). These are unused parts of licensed spectrum - for example within frequencies used for television broadcasting - that are unused but which need some management at the users' end to avoid the potential to interfere with television signals. There is a pilot project going on in South Africa supported by Google at the moment.

2. Reducing applications' appetitites for data

Those Internet users in "bandwidth poor" countries are often using many of the same applications and services that those in bandwidth rich countries are using. The (bandwidth-rich) designers and providers of those apps have been designing them largely for the bandwidth rich - commonly users on unlimited data plans. This is not a new digital divide - I've read decades old online correspondence recently of an early Africa-focused list-serve in the pre-web Internet where "irresponsible" European partners were being chastised for overloading the system with data (measured in KBs) that had cost an African partner hundreds of dollars to download. Facebook has been a leader in developing low bandwidth versions of its apps that have worked well in Africa. Their 'Facebook for Every Phone' consumes much less data than its smartphone app and is widely used in Africa (the facebook page has nearly 300 million likes).

Zuckerberg says in the plan that: "The technology behind Facebook for Every Phone is generally applicable, and we’re looking at ways to make this available so other apps can be as data efficient as well." If "we're looking at" turns into "we will" then this could be an important commitment.

3. Zero-rating data and getting pre-paid users onto contracts

Facebook has done deals in Africa with mobile operators - MTN for example - to offer free data on facebook. The service is called Facebook zero. Google has offered something similar with Freezone.  In the white paper, Facebook says that this can work as a business model for operators: "We think this model exists. We’ve already seen results where attaching free data for Facebook — what we’ve historically called zero-rating — increases both phone sales profits and data plan profits." That's interesting information. But since the launch of Facebook Zero in 2010, it doesn't seem to have extended its reach. At this stage, from my own limited research, it is not available in more than a handful of countries.

4. Two Big Questions

Will and Zuckerberg's plan help get many more of the 5 billion connected?
What kind of Internet will they be connected to?

Zuckerberg and his corporate partners (which include Samsung and Nokia) have significant capital - both economic and political.  Its a good thing that users/consumers in poor countries are now important enough to Facebook that they are willing to focus their own and others attention on getting 'the 5 billion' connected.  The rough plan highlights opportunities - both technological and commercial - that could have significant impacts. Note though that it omits any discussion about the role of governments or regulators - important actors with a role in reducing costs and increasing access.

The plan also gives an indication of  the contest to come over what kind of Internet we will be connecting to and so the business models discussion it raises is one which those who care about Internet access and use in Africa need to focus on. Facebook Zero doesn't enable poor people to connect to the Internet as a general purpose technology, it allows people to connect to Facebook. It also places the mobile operator in the position of selecting and differentiating the terms on which a user gets different content and services. There are other industry voices - Google springs to mind - that have not joined this coalition and that have also been actively and publicly engaged on these issues. Google also has its own zero cost access model - FreeZone - which they have made available in a handful of countries including South Africa. Free access is something to be welcomed. But this is not the open web. may represent a significant step in organising (some) powerful actors in the Internet industry to address Internet access for the majority of the planet. Indeed unless these actors do engage with this issue it may not be possible to achieve an Internet of 'everybody connected to everybody'. As Zuckerberg puts it:

"There is no guarantee that most people will ever have access to the internet. It isn’t going to
happen by itself. But I believe connectivity is a human right, and that if we work together we
can make it a reality."

But if connectivity is a human right then it must be an inclusive one. Not all of the bandwidth poor are economically poor though many are. The industry may be able to extend the market of users through some of the innovations that Zuckerberg proposes. But universal access will take more than industry alone.

There should be a robust debate about the 'rough plan'. And that debate must include not only the Internet industry but users, non-users, governments and regulators.  We should welcome the opportunity that Zuckerberg's initiative offers but we should request - or is that demand? - that that opportunity includes engagement with the people he is seeking to connect.

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