How much difference can one company make? Mark Zuckerberg appears to be setting out to test that question with his immodest goal of connecting everyone on the planet to the Internet. While many companies talk about “doing well by doing good,” Facebook’s Internet.org initiative makes most other corporate projects for social betterment look banal.
But such extreme ambition is not illogical. A unique combination of circumstances confers on Facebook a position—and perhaps a responsibility—unlike any other company. Facebook’s site is the most popular on the global Internet. Over one billion people now use it on phones, making it the most popular mobile app as well. The Internet itself, in turn, is an unprecedented tool for social value and growth, transforming business and individual opportunity around the world. Given its popularity, Facebook is likely to grow as Internet usage grows. “Over the very long term,” says Zuckerberg in an interview in his office, “if we can connect everybody in the world—will that be good for Facebook? Of course. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also good for other people.” While 2.7 billion are currently on the Net, the 9 percent annual growth rate in that figure is, for him, unacceptable.
He wants to increase it by getting more people connected on their phones. Facebook launched Internet.org as a collaborative initiative with a group of other major mobile-oriented companies. All would also likely benefit as global Internet use grows. They include Ericsson, the leader in mobile system infrastructure; wireless chipmaker MediaTek; cellphone company Nokia; Web browsing software provider Opera; leading smartphone chipmaker Qualcomm; and Samsung, which dominates Android phones. Some initiative projects will be conducted jointly with these and additional partners. Others Facebook will undertake alone. (I wrote about the launch of Internet.org on LinkedIn last August.)
The central idea of Internet.org is that the best way to grow the Internet is to give those without it a free taste of its life-altering resources. That should create more demand and ultimately lead to greater service availability. Facebook and Internet.org have announced several efforts so far to give that taste to unconnected people. The now globally-famous social network itself is a significant lure. Explains Javier Olivan, vice president for growth: “In much of the emerging world, if you ask people if they want the Internet they may ask ‘What is that?’ But ask them if they want Facebook, and they say ‘Yes.'”
Said Zuckerberg at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: “The goal we have in Internet.org is to create a sort of onramp to the Internet.” But he added, “It’s not that connectivity is an end in itself. It’s the things that connectivity brings.” Then he listed some he hoped would, in turn, become more available to everyone globally: “Basic financial services, …credit to start a business or get a home, or access to basic health information.”
While he is highly analytical and methodical, Zuckerberg is not afraid to take enormous, even risky, steps to achieve his goals. Otherwise he could not have created a service of nearly 1.3 billion users in the 10 years since he founded it in his Harvard dorm room. His determination to move quickly towards ubiquitous global connectivity helps explain the jaw-sockingly unexpected $16 billion February purchase of WhatsApp. In his view, owning it helps him proceed with Internet.org’s first big project—offering mobile users in developing countries a limited suite of essential digital services for free. Internet mobile messaging, which WhatsApp dominates in much of the world, is a critical element in such a suite.
To illustrate what he means, Zuckerberg talks about how anyone can pick up their phone and get certain things for free—like the ubiquitous “dial tone,” or the ability to dial 911 for emergency assistance. “It occurred to me there should be an equivalent of those basic services for the Internet,” Zuckerberg explains in his office. Since the Internet does a lot more than the phone network, such services can be a lot richer than simply emergency response. “Pretty soon everyone will have a smartphone, they say, and that may be true,” he continues. “But the expensive part of owning a smartphone is the data. The data is not coming down that quickly in cost. Even if you can’t afford a data plan, everyone in the world should be able to pick up their cheap smartphone and get access to weather information, and basic messaging, or maybe food or other commodity prices, Wikipedia, basic social network communication, and basic search.”
At Mobile World Congress he was promoting this idea to mobile phone carriers that operate in emerging markets. He wants to work with them to provide access to a digital onramp that is already in place. All but about a billion of the world’s unconnected people live in areas where wireless networks are actually available. Facebook aims to convince carriers to give the free services to cellphone customers, and offers in turn to help them capitalize on those customers’ newfound access to data. If, say, a user looking at basic Facebook or Wikipedia wants to view a video, a simple onscreen dialogue could sell a data upgrade on the spot. Facebook’s experts on interface and user-dialogue design are developing such tools and giving them to carriers. The Philippines’ Globe Telecom doubled its paying data users in one test that offered a basic version of Facebook for free. Of those, 25 percent were entirely new customers. Explains Dan Rose, who heads Facebook’s partnership efforts: “We’re trying to remove barriers to people getting online in a way that is net positive for the business of the operators.” Adds growth boss Olivan: “We can help operators prevent churn, acquire new users, and understand more about their user base.”
Internet.org’s partner companies are undertaking other projects that could make all this work even better. There are many ways to increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of wireless Internet data. The companies aim to find ways to improve infrastructure, slim down data-hogging apps, and invent more effective business models for carriers. Ericsson is creating a facility on Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California, so developers of apps can test them in conditions that simulate what a user would find in various developing countries. Signals in such places can be weak, bandwidth low, and simultaneous network users many. Qualcomm is helping streamline how apps run on inexpensive phones. Facebook has radically improved its own Android app to require dramatically less data than a year ago, without altering what the user experiences. Explains Facebook infrastructure boss Jay Parikh, who oversees the technical side of Internet.org: “What good is it to connect everybody if they can’t use the applications? Or if they constantly go over their pre-paid limits?”
Parikh also manages an even more radical set of efforts to provide free Internet to that last billion people who lack any wireless coverage. Facebook plans to deploy a combination of satellites for areas of low population density, unmanned solar-powered drones that stay aloft for months at a time for broadcast from closer to Earth to medium density areas, and ground-based, so-called “mesh” wireless networks for unserved urban areas. Meanwhile, Google is separately experimenting with ways to provide Internet service in unwired areas. It’s developing high-altitude balloons, and in April purchased New Mexico’s Titan Aerospace, which makes solar-powered drones. Facebook, for its part, in March purchased British drone developer Ascenta. The social network is hiring as many as 50 experts in satellites, drones, and special data-carrying laser systems from places like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Ames Research Center.
This may not sound like a company that exists just to help you share a selfie. It isn’t. Facebook at 10 is worth $150 billion, has steadily growing profits, and marshals vast resources. And Zuckerberg is a man of his generation who believes that a business has little real value if it isn’t also doing good. “I cannot put together a model that shows how this is going to be profitable for us any time in the near future,” he says calmly, sitting on the couch in his glass-walled conference room as employees stream past outside. “I have this philosophy that you can’t always connect the dots on why something is going to be good for you going forward. But generally, if you do good things you end up benefitting down the line.”
David Kirkpatrick wrote “The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that Is Connecting the World,” about the company’s early history and its CEO.