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Internet for everyone

Technology | Project to spread web access could speed up growth in Africa

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

A simple smartphone app may become the key that unlocks economic development potential for dozens of underdeveloped nations. Last month the nonprofit organization Internet.org released an app that provides free internet data access to a set of core services for people in Zambia. The Internet.org app is being launched in partnership with cellular carrier Airtel, and will provide users with free mobile web access to services such as Google and Wikipedia, along with health information websites and online job listings.

The app will also include a free version of Facebook and its Messenger app, which is not surprising since Facebook is one of the founding backers of Internet.org along with Nokia, Ericsson, and several other leaders in mobile internet. Internet.org is the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s young CEO, who has made it a personal challenge to bring internet connectivity to the 70 percent of the world’s population currently without it. 

“Getting access to the internet is a really big deal,” said Zuckerberg during a CNN interview last year about Internet.org. “I think we’re going to be able to do it.”

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According to Internet.org’s director of product management, Guy Rosen, only 30 percent of the world’s population accesses the internet, however more than 85 percent lives in areas with existing cellular coverage. Many more people could access the internet but aren’t—primarily because they either can’t afford the data plans for their mobile phone, or they don’t really understand the Web and what it could do for them.

Reaction to Internet.org’s launch in Zambia has been mostly positive, but there are critics. One commentator described the rollout as “a Facebook growth tactic masquerading as altruism.” Others have complained that it creates a new kind of digital divide—with essentially a separate internet for poor people. Other critics say that having one portal for internet access in a country violates the tenets of so-called net neutrality.

But those who applaud this experiment in economic development point out that simply providing a communications network in countries without one contributes to economic growth. Leonard Waverman of the London Business School studied GDP growth in developing countries and showed that adding just 10 more mobile phones per 100 people increases average annual per capita GDP growth by more than half a percent.

The Internet.org initiative is in keeping with the economic development principles advocated by the late Nobel Prize–winning economist Friedrich von Hayek, who believed empowering people from the bottom up created greater economic opportunity. Hayek’s approach to development is discussed in the recent book by NYU economics Professor William Easterly entitled The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. That book is WORLD magazine’s 2014 Book of the Year in the analysis category.

While Facebook, Airtel, and other internet-based companies hope these emerging markets will lead to more business and many criticize their motives, Zuckerberg deserves credit for taking up this important challenge and putting his money where his mouth is.

“If we were just focused on making money, the first billion people that we’ve connected have way more money than the rest of the next six billion combined,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s not fair but it’s the way that it is. And we just believe that everyone deserves to be connected and on the internet, so we’re putting a lot of energy towards this.” 

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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