Facebook-led project seeks Internet access for all

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Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has enlisted Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm and other technology companies to help him in a project aimed at making Internet access affordable for the 5 billion people around the world who are not online.

The group, called internet.org, is the latest effort by an Internet company to seek to expand Web access to emerging economies. It follows a similar thrust by Facebook rival Google, which uses everything from balloons to fiber connections to expand connectivity.

While short on specifics, Zuckerberg’s group intends to explore everything from lower-cost smartphones and providing Internet access to underserved communities, to working out ways to reduce the amount of data downloads required to run mobile Internet applications such as Facebook.

Zuckerberg did not give an estimate on how much it would cost to connect the world’s population to the Internet.

He said the key is to cut network operators’ costs for providing data services so they can in turn lower the prices charged to consumers.

The 29-year-old who founded Facebook in his university dorm room said in a 10-page document released on Wednesday that he hopes the efficiency of data delivery will improve 100-fold in the next five to ten years.

Keith Mallinson, a longtime telecom industry analyst, said that while the concepts and technologies Zuckerberg cites could be viable, the commercial interests of big companies and government politics could create bigger obstacles.

“There has to be a lot of heavy lifting to make all these things happen and to coordinate them,” said Mallinson, who founded research firm WiseHarbor.

While 2.7 billion people are already online, the number is increasing by less than 9 percent annually, a rate that Zuckerberg said was too slow. Two-thirds of the world’s population still has no Internet access.

While many of today’s Facebook members use the service just to keep in touch with friends, Zuckerberg said future Internet users may have more lofty needs.

“They’re going to use it to decide what kind of governments they want, get access to healthcare for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven’t seen in decades,” he told CNN’s “New Day” show on Wednesday.

The world’s largest social network with 1 billion-plus members, Facebook once harbored ambitions of becoming an all-encompassing Web destination with everything from searches to messaging and shopping, analysts say. But a succession of forays into new areas, such as its “Home” interface for smartphones, fizzled.

Zuckerberg said in the CNN interview that internet.org was for now a “rough plan.” He said the project was not just about making money for Facebook, which needs to keep expanding to boost revenue.

He noted that the first billion Facebook members “have way more money” than the rest of the world combined.

Facebook recently surprised Wall Street by reporting stronger-than-expected quarterly results, helped by an increase in advertising revenue from mobile users.

The earnings report was a much-needed boost for the company, which has struggled to regain credibility after a rocky initial public offering in May 2012. It remains under pressure to sustain its high growth rate by expanding into new markets.

Besides Facebook, other players in internet.org include Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia and Opera Software ASA.

While the list did not include mobile network operators, Zuckerberg said these companies would play a central role.

For example, he suggested improvements such as new antenna technology and data-caching, new types of partnerships and better use of wireless airwaves, which are typically auctioned to carriers for billions of dollars in government sales.

He also suggested that linking consumers’ Facebook accounts with carriers could provide operators more consumer data.

Analyst Mallinson said it may be difficult to get governments to change their policies on spectrum but suggested that Internet and telecom companies could change how they do business.

For example, Internet firms like Facebook and Google, which do not have to build or maintain vast public networks that carry Internet traffic, could pass some advertising revenue on to carriers that spend billions of dollars on networks to help reduce data prices for consumers, he said.

Google has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on fledgling network projects such as local high-speed fiber networks. But it now depends almost completely on traditional telecom companies to deliver its services to consumers.

In June, Google announced a small network of balloons over the Southern Hemisphere in an experiment it hopes to use to bring reliable Internet access to remote regions.

The pilot program, Project Loon, took off from New Zealand’s South Island, using solar-powered, high-altitude balloons that ride the wind about 12.5 miles (20 kilometers), or twice as high as airplanes, above the ground.

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