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Finance & Innovation

Facebook brings free mobile Internet to India

Facebook has a problem. In January 2015, the social network reported having 1.39 billion active users, dwarfing its competitors. Ok, so that bit’s not a problem. But with fewer than 2 billion smartphone users in the world, and under 3 billion Internet users, it gets hard for a company as big as Facebook to actually grow beyond its current size.
One of Facebook’s answers to the problem is really interesting, and it also has significant flow-on benefits for some of the world’s poorest people. Because… if people aren’t on Facebook because they can’t afford to have Internet on their phones… that stumbling block can be overcome if Facebook gets these people free Internet. 

Internet.org

With this in mind, Facebook partnered with companies including Samsung and Nokia in 2013 to create Internet.org, a project that aims to bring Internet connectivity to the 5 billion people who don’t have access.
The three major initiatives of the partnership are:
Making Internet access affordable through cheaper smartphones and partnerships with operators
Using less data by improving the efficiency of the apps and experiences we use
Helping businesses drive Internet access by developing a new model to get people online
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has laid out his vision in a document called “Is Connectivity A Human Right?” in which he argues that being able to access the Internet’s information has become intertwined with being able to achieve one’s potential in life. This concept is quite new, with traditional ideas of international development having more of a focus on health, education, and good governance. But it’s important in the 21st century.
I was a bit hard on Facebook at the start of this article, too. The intention behind Internet.org is primarily to make life better for people. As Zuckerberg correctly pointed out, “the unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be profitable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.”

And now, to India

In its first couple of years, Internet.org rolled out in half a dozen African countries, plus Colombia. It involved partnering with local mobile phone operators to offer users free access to a limited range of websites. The free websites vary from country to country, but include popular destinations such as Wikipedia, BBC News, and Facebook, along with weather, sports, and health websites. There are not currently plans to include Twitter on that list!
While the first markets Internet.org was rolled out to have been small and medium sized nations, it was announced today that the project is scaling up its ambitions and entering India. Partnering with local mobile operator Reliance, Internet.org will be available to Reliance customers in six different Indian states, offering a wider range of free websites than most of the other Internet.org country launches.
Of course, Internet.org isn’t the magic answer for eliminating poverty, but it’s part of a good recipe. By extending access to reliable information to billions more people, innovative approaches like Internet.org offer the chance to learn, connect, promote their skills, and be inspired. It’s still early days for the project, but I’ll be watching with interest!