85% of the 5 billion people without Internet simply can’t afford data plans. So Facebook’s accessibility initiativeInternet.org today launches its Android and web app for the developing world with free data access to a limited set of services including Facebook, Messenger, Wikipedia, and Google Search. It also provides local health, employment, weather, and women’s rights resources.
Internet.org’s app is launching in Zambia before coming to other developing countries eventually, and is a partnership with local carrier Airtel who provides the free access in hopes that Zambians see the web’s value and buy pre-paid data through the app to explore the rest of the Internet. The Facebook Zero has been giving the developing world access to a stripped down version of Facebook since 2010. But this new Internet.org app with other services will be available as a compact, standalone Android app, baked into the Facebook for Android app, or freely available as a mobile website that the feature phones carried by the vast majority of Zambians can access.
Internet.org, Facebook’s partnership with six telecom companies, is also working on drones and satellites to deliver Internet connection infrastructure to the 15% of people who are unconnected because they’re in remote areas with no cellular towers in range. The initiative to get more people on the Internet is sometimes criticized as a Facebook growth tactic masquerading as altruism. In this, Internet.org’s app will in fact grow Facebook by making usage free in Zambia.
But Internet.org product manager Guy Rosen defends the project’s benevolent side by reiterating Mark Zuckerberg’s white papers, telling me that Internet access can have a profound positive impact on the carrier opportunities and education for people in the developing world. “We’re here to build a program that covers more than Facebook so we can accelerate the pace at which people are connecting to the Internet which is 9% a year” says Rosen. “We really want to make that happen faster.”
A Slice Of internet For Free, The Rest At A Price
Internet.org’s app is designed to provide critical services to all Zambians for free, while also spreading awareness of why the Internet is useful and might be worth paying for. The 4.25 billion people who aren’t on the Internet but could be because traditional cellular connections are available fall into two buckets, says Rosen. Those who want the Internet but can’t afford it because data plans are too expensive. And those who don’t fully understand the web. Rosen tells me “a lot of people don’t know what the Internet is. They don’t know what it could do for their lives and livelihood. It’s a vague concept.”
Of course this perspective assumes the Internet is equivocally good for people, which may not be true for all cultures. But the app is designed for people who would want the Internet if they about it and could afford it.
To promote the Internet.org app in Zambia there will be call-outs in the Facebook app, an awareness campaign, and notifications to Airtel subscribers. The country’s residents can then visit Internet.org from their smartphone or browser-equipped feature phone for an entirely free entry point. Alternatively, they can pay for a little data to download the Internet.org app that’s just 800 kilobytes, or the Facebook For Android app where the Internet.org app is baked into a tab.
From these three identical entry points, users can use one of a selection of apps entirely for free. These include:
- Facebook – for staying in touch with friends
- Facebook Messenger – for direct contact with loved ones
- Google Search – to find information, though clicking through to results will require a data plan
- Wikipedia – to learn about anything, and all internal Wikipedia links are free to access
- AccuWeather – to get updated weather information that’s critical for farmers
- Airtel – to learn more about the carrier and buy data plans
- eZeLibrary – to learn about Zambian government information
- Facts for Life (by UNICEF) – to find heath and hygiene info including advice on pregnancy, childbirth, childhood illnesses, child development, parenting, protection, and child care
- Go Zambia Jobs – to search for jobs
- Kokoliko – search for jobs
MAMA (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action) – Info on maternal health for impoverished mothers
- WRAPP (Women’s Rights App) – learn about women’s rights and what to do if rights have been violated
- Zambia uReport (by UNICEF) – To find HIV and AIDS health info
If Google’s inclusion seems a little odd considering it has its own Internet accessibility initiative Project Loon, know that Facebook tells me content providers in the app don’t need to be official Internet.org partners.
An On-Ramp To Paid Data Plans
Airtel pays for all this free access. Rosen tells me Facebook and Internet.org don’t pay at all. Instead, the free access acts as an on-ramp to Airtel’s data plans.
If users click through to links outside of these services or use other apps, Internet.org will show users a roadblock screen that warns them they’ll be expending their data plan or need to buy one. Zambians would then go to a local store and top-up with pre-paid credit on Airtel if necessary. The model works because Airtel believes it can earn more money using the free limited access as a loss leader to drive data plan purchases. This works out well for locals, because those who can’t afford these plans get a ton resources at no cost because they’re effectively subsidized by those who can.
Facebook has been offering free access to a stripped down version of its service under the name Facebook Zero since 2010 when it launched with 50 operators in countries around the world. The program has been hailed for driving Facebook penetration in Africa.
In the last six months, though, Internet.org own deals have come to fruition. On last week’s earnings call, Zuckerberg said that “our initial partnerships in the Philippines, Paraguay, and Tanzania have helped around 3 million people connect to the Internet who had no access before.” And back in February at Mobile World Congress, he highlighted how the deals are delivering customers to its carrier partners. Discussing a Filipino Network Globe when he said “what we’re seeing in Globe users is the number of people who are using the internet — the data — was doubled, and Globe subscribers have grown by 25%, so it’s a home run.”
It is a little scary that Facebook and Internet.org could decide what qualifies as a basic Internet service offered free and what doesn’t. You’ll notice Twitter isn’t in the list. But Facebook’s worldwide appeal makes it a valuable ally to carriers who need flagship services to point to for why people should want the Internet. So it gets to call the shots.
If the app is a success in Zambia, you can expect Internet.org will roll it out in other carriers and countries in Africa, Asia, and South America where the same data affordability problem persists. And if Facebook can be one of the first ways people experience the Internet, they won’t forget it as they become full-fledged Internet users. Seems altruism can be a business model.