Mark Zuckerberg lays out plan to connect the next 5-billion

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Looks like Mark Zuckerberg’s been stealing peeks at the Google play book. The founder and CEO of the billion-strong social network today announced “rough” plans to get an extra 5-billion people online.

As Zuckerberg notes, there are only around 2.4-billion internet users, meaning that around 5-billion people aren’t connected.

While it would appear to make good economic sense for Facebook to help bring more people online — more users equals more eyeballs to sell to advertisers — the hoodied one says it’s about more than numbers for him:

I’m focused on this because I believe it is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. 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.

Zuckerberg’s plan for expanding internet access around the globe focuses on three levers:

  • Making internet access affordable by making it more efficient to deliver data.
  • 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.

The first of these is particularly important, given that a proliferation of cheap smartphones means that increasing numbers of people will have access to devices capable of high internet functions. The reality however is that many won’t be able to afford the data to keep them running at full use.

“In many countries,” says Zuckerberg, “the cost of a data plan is vastly more expensive than the price of a smartphone. In the US, for example, an iPhone with a typical two-year data plan costs
about US$2 000, where about US$500–600 of that is the phone and US$1 500 is the data.”

In turn, he adds, “the vast majority of the prices people pay for data plans go directly towards covering the tens of billions of dollars spent each year building the global infrastructure to deliver the internet. Unless this becomes more efficient, the industry cannot sustainably serve everyone”.

Some of the technologies he believes could help solve this problem include network extension technology (which amplifies data signal from inside buildings), the Open Compute project (which Facebook helped build), Edge caching (which caches data inside an operator’s data center and makes it faster and cheaper for the operator to serve that data), and White Space spectrum (something that Google and Microsoft are already experimenting with in a number of emerging market countries).

In terms of using less data, Zuckerberg reckons that developers need to think like people in emerging market countries where data is pricey, rather than their own countries, where it’s relatively cheap.

“When you have an unlimited data plan, there isn’t much of an incentive to use less data,” he says, “But most of the world doesn’t work this way”.

That’s why Zuckerberg reckons that data compression, the technology that initially made BlackBerry’s BIS and the Opera Mini browser so successful.

The main reasons many app developers don’t compress the data they serve is that doing so requires some effort to build, makes code marginally harder to debug and has a small negative impact on performance.

However, in data conscious developing countries, this is a large opportunity. Modern text compression frequently yields results of 70–80% — or almost 5x savings — and in some cases even more. Implementing compression in large-scale apps or developing services that you route all your data through and compress everything would yield large data use savings.

But he also reckons that caching could help people use less data, as well as making sure that the most used apps on the market are as efficient as they can possibly be.

He also points to a couple of emerging technologies that could help bring the amount of data used down, including experiments that Facebook itself is conducting:

There are also more speculative approaches we’re investigating, including enabling people to download some News Feed stories and photos from their friends’ nearby phones over Wi-Fi Direct and other local network technologies. This will not eliminate the need for mobile data, but it can further reduce the associated costs here, as well as enable people to load content when they have spotty connections.

Overall, it seems reasonable to expect that over the next few years we can deliver many of the same basic services using at least 10x less data than we’re using today. If we can do this, then these services will become at least 10x cheaper for people buying pre-paid data plans in developing countries. Again, doing this by itself will go a long way towards making internet access affordable and available to all.

Finally, the Facebook founder suggests that there need to be new ways of thinking when it comes to getting people online. For instance, he says, if you ask someone where they’ve never really had internet access if they want a data plan, they might give you a blank stare in return, but if you ask them if they want access to Facebook, they’re much more likely to get that what you’re offering them is important.

Among the solutions he proposes for achieving this is are Zero-rating data (think about data-free versions of Facebook and Wikipedia that have come out over the past few years), building up credit infrastructure and giving people good reasons to connect to the internet and join the global knowledge economy.

Okay, so Zuckerberg’s plan doesn’t sound all that exciting. It doesn’t involve high altitude balloons for one. But as a path forward, it’s actually a pretty sensible. In all likelihood, the next five-billion people won’t suddenly come online courtesy of one piece of miracle technology. It’ll take hard work, and people doing things in bits and pieces. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all doing good work in this are. But so are non profits like former Mxit CEO Alan Knott Craig Jr’s project Isizwe in South Africa. What is perhaps needed then, and what is not readily evident from Zuckerberg’s roadmap is someone to highlight and help coordinate all those efforts at spreading connectivity.

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