Facebook is moving to extend free internet access to millions of sub-Saharan Africans by next year through its Internet.org program.
The world’s top social network landed a partnership with French satellite company Eutelast to connect some of the world’s most internet- and electricity-deprived regions to the internet.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg first announced plans to expand free internet access to the world’s poorest countries in 2013 by rolling out the Internet.org mobila app — a collection of media organizations, Wikipedia, and, of course, Facebook its personal messaging app that provide free access and content through a partnership with local telecom companies.
The company’s new partnership will be its first venture away from the mobile-only internet access that relies on telecom companies’ cell towers. Less than 20 percent of sub-Saharan Africans are online, according to Facebook’s connectivity report, and only 53 percent of can afford to browse the internet for up to two hours a month. By 2016, 14 countries in East, West, and Southern Africa will have access beamed to their mobile devices courtesy of Eutelast and Israeli-based global satellite communications company AMOS by Spacecom.
Africa was the genesis of Internet.org, with Zambia being the first country to receive the service in 2014. Since then, Facebook has introduced packaged internet content to more than a billion people in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Columbia, and India.
But despite the company’s noble ambitions, the program has hit obstacles particularly regarding Internet.org’s debut in India earlier this year when users criticized Facebook for violating the principles of net neutrality — equal access to internet content without preferential treatment or extra costs to visit certain sites.
Protests erupted in April after one of India’s major telecom companies’ Bharti Airtel announced plans to introduce a product that would charge mobile app developers for consumers’ data usage. That plan, critics said, favored larger, wealthier companies such as Facebook that could afford those costs and thus influence and potentially limit customers access to online content and stymie innovation.
Zuckerberg didn’t immediately address the swelling contempt among Indian users, initially saying connectivity was a higher priority than net neutrality during a Facebook Q&A;:
I think net neutrality is important to make sure network operators don’t discriminate and limit access to services people want to use…For people who are not on the internet though, having some connectivity and some ability to share is always much better than having no ability to connect and share at all.
The young billionaire CEO expounded on his position when interviewed by a group of Indian journalists visiting Facebook’s Menlo Park, California headquarters:
There is this big debate in India now on how we balance these two things [connectivity and net neutrality regulations]. This is an important debate in India because it is the country with the most number of unconnected people — a billion people. We know that for every 1 person who get access to the Internet, one new job gets created and one person gets lifted out of poverty. So in theory going and connecting everyone on the Internet is a large national and even global priority.
It is probably one of the biggest things you could do. We here also believe in net neutrality very strongly. If someone wants to get access to some service, but an operator wants to charge more money, then that is bad. It isn’t a fair thing to do and is a big issue. But at the same time if you have a student in a classroom looking up for information for free and do her homework, it is hard to see why there is an issue with that.