There's nothing wrong with
the ambitious plan
just unveiled by
) and friends to bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the
world's people who don't have it.
It would have gone over a lot better, though, without the pretense
that Mark Zuckerberg is some kind of benign 21st century missionary
bringing the gift of Facebook to the benighted denizens of the
That's the unfortunate impression left by the announcement Monday
of a technology company partnership that is supposed to work on
ways to reduce the cost of data plans so that customers in the
developing world can afford to subscribe to them.
It's a business plan, and as such it's a pretty good one, and even
an essential one for Facebook.
The partnership promises to invest in technologies that reduce the
amount of data required to use Internet applications, and make the
networks that deliver them more efficient, and therefore lower
All of the companies involved have almost as good a business reason
as Facebook to work on this. They include
"Almost as good" because Facebook is the only one of these
companies that has little opportunity for growth in its customer
base in the Western world. At more than 1 billion enrolled users,
it has pretty much run out of developed world to exploit. It needs
Asia, Africa, and Latin America more than they need it.
) is in much the same position.
And where, you may well ask, is Google in this list of partners? It
isn't in the partnership, because it has its own strategies for
expansion in the works, and besides, Google and Facebook hate each
other's guts, in a business-like way, of course.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among others, have programs to bring
the Internet to underserved parts of the globe. None are charitable
endeavors. In fact, they're not giving away much beyond teasers for
new users. For instance:
- The Google Free Zone, a project that provides free data
access to top-level Google content on low-end feature phones, was
extended to India through a partnership with
(BOM:532454) in June. The service offers first-time consumers
unlimited data for email and searches, but any click on a link
brings up an invitation to purchase a data plan. Google had
previously tested the offer in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
Airtel, headquartered in New Delhi, has 275 million subscribers
in 20 countries.
- Twitter and
(VOD) launched a similar
joint venture in India
last month. The program has a three-month limit, making it more a
free trial than a service.
- Facebook has Facebook Zero, a text-only version of the site
designed for low-end feature phones that can be accessed free of
data charges from participating carriers.
All of the above are limited in scope, and dependent on subsidies
to partner companies. That may be as good as it gets without the
kind of technology improvements that the new Facebook-led
partnership is aiming to make.
, also from Google, takes an entirely different and much more
colorful approach to the problem of inadequate infrastructure.
In a test in New Zealand, the company sent up a network of 30
balloons that float 12 miles up, at the edge of space. People in
remote areas can use a special Google antenna to connect to the
balloon network, which is controlled by (what else?) "complex
algorithms" that feed signals between network and user.
Just this week,
that it was looking for volunteer participants for its first US
test, based in Central Valley, California.
Unfortunately, the online form to apply was removed within two days
of its appearance, leading to speculation that plenty of people had
It is unclear whether Central Valley residents are fed up with
their current Internet data services, or just eager to participate
in Project Loon.
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