Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to get five billion people in developing nations online is ambitious but unlikely to bear fruit any time soon, with a survey of network analysts suggesting the Facebook-led project faces a considerable lead-time before any significant number of users are actually connected. The so-called internet.org project may be supported by some industry heavyweights – including Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung – but the lack of a committed timescale is perhaps unsurprising, Computerworld reports, given the inherent challenges it faces.
“The client hardware and software have to be built. The network stuff has to be built out. The subsidization business has to be negotiated and initiated” Technology Business Resources analyst Ezra Gottheil highlighted. “And they have to start signing up five billion people. That’s a long line.”
Zuckerberg and the other partners have been relatively quiet on how, exactly, internet.org will deliver that promised access. However, whereas schemes like Google’s Project Loon – which will float internet-relaying balloons at high altitude, beaming down roughly 3G-equivalent connectivity – and OLPC’s XO Tablet – which will come out of the box with mesh networking abilities – have focused on ways to broaden data networks, Facebook is looking to cheaper smartphones and data compression, it seems.
Nonetheless, technical hurdles aren’t the only problems internet.org must address. A likely bigger issue will be dealing with the local-level partners, government agencies, and other involved parties, not to mention handling the registration process for a 5bn-strong user group.
“It will take quite a while and it will take a big investment” The Gabriel Consulting Group analyst Dan Olds points out. “They’ll have to deal with infrastructure issues, politics and cultural issues. There are a lot more issues than technical issues. It’s these other issues that may be more daunting.”
Of the partners involved, it may be Nokia that has the most experience getting new users online. The company’s established footprint in developing nations – where cheap devices, low levels of data consumption (or even reliance on SMS messaging instead), and long battery life are more important than Full HD displays and megapixel-rich cameras – has seen Nokia invest in numerous social schemes, such as using phones to track malaria outbreaks, promote education, and more.
Even with that experience, the Zuckerberg’s scheme is still likely to face vocal criticism in the long period between announcement and going live. As Bill Gates said of Google’s Project Loon recently, there may be more urgent needs in developing nations than getting online. “When a kid gets diarrhea,” Gates argued, “no, there’s no website that relieves that.”