FB and partners want a world where everyone, everywhere is connected
Amidst infrastructure and cost issues, they may face regulatory challenges in Asean
LATE last month, Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg launched a global partnership called internet.org which aims to make Internet access available to ‘the next five billion people.’
“Today, only 2.7 billion people – just over one-third of the world's population – have access to the Internet. Internet adoption is growing by less than 9% each year, which is slow considering how early we are in its development,” he said in a note posted on Facebook, titled Is Connectivity a Human Right?.
Internet.org is influenced by the successful Open Compute Project, an industry-wide initiative that has lowered the costs of cloud computing by making hardware designs more efficient and innovative.
In that note, Zuckerberg (pic) said that the founding members of internet.org – Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung – will “develop joint projects, share knowledge, and mobilise industry and governments to bring the world online.”
“These founding companies have a long history of working closely with mobile operators and expect them to play leading roles within the initiative, which over time will also include NGOs, academics and experts as well,” he said.
The plan will focus on three areas:
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.
To make access affordable, internet.org will look into network extension technology; working off the above Open Compute Project; and even exploring ‘edge caching’ technology that caches data inside an operator’s data centre, making it faster and cheaper for the operator to serve that data.
To use less data, the movement is looking into caching technology that can help serve data more efficiently, new data compression techniques and more.
As for helping businesses develop new models to get more people online, Zuckerberg argued that ‘zero-rating data’ or allowing free data for social media use, for example – something which DiGi and Maxis offer in Malaysia – increases both phone sales proﬁts and data plan proﬁts. Internet.org will explore other methods as well.
“I’m focused on this because I believe it is one of the greatest challenges of our generation,” Zuckerberg said.
“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.”
Facebook is not the first company to attempt to bring the Internet to ‘the next’ billion or inhabitants of the planet, noted a New York Times report which cited Google Inc’s programme with phone carriers last year that offers wireless users in some developing countries free access to Gmail, search and the first page clicked through from a search’s results.
“Google is also reaching for the sky with Project Loon, an attempt to beam Internet access down to earth from plastic balloons floating more than 11 miles in the atmosphere,” the Times noted.
In regions such as South-East Asia – where almost all of the challenges Zuckerberg laid out apply as well – have their own sets of problems as well, not the least of which is how governments are taking to the Internet and its ‘freewheeling’ ways.
When asked which are the biggest challenges in this part of the world, Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) executive director John Ure (pic) said the first would be the lack of infrastructure or availability; and the second would be accessibility in terms of price and bandwidth.
The third would be “poor regulation or repressive regulation holding back local entrepreneurs and, therefore, holding back the digital economy,” he said.
The AIC is an industry association whose members include Facebook as well as eBay, Google, Salesforce.com and Yahoo!, that seeks to promote the understanding and resolution of Internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region.
When asked how internet.org should approach its aspiration in this part of the world, Ure said that if it could make an impact on the first two challenges, it would be doing a good job, since the third challenge – the regulatory challenges – may be beyond its remit.
Not that the first two would be easy either. “Given the competition that exists among vendors, to identify grounds on which they can cooperate is the challenge,” he said.
“Standards is one area – it can reduce equipment prices – and advocating allowing parallel imports is another, but this runs against the monopolistic interests of many vendors.
“It’s part of minimising the non-tariff barriers to trade: More flexible licensing arrangements and more flexible national regulations to encourage local innovation in technologies and services, and the removal of barriers to entry, especially for local entrepreneurs,” he added.
However, Ure still wondered about inter-vendors rivalries, noting what happened with the One Laptop Per Child project kicked off by MIT Media Labs founder and industry icon Nicholas Negroponte. The non-profit OLPC aimed to bring computing technologies to emerging economies.
Intel Corp left the project after a dispute and came out with its own low-cost laptops running on the Android operating system, AIC’s Ure noted. “How do you overcome these rivalries?”
When asked if South-East Asian governments, in general, were doing enough to bring Internet access to their masses, Ure said they “could do far, far more.”
“The problem is the poor in remote areas (and even the poor in urban areas) do not carry much political weight.
“One-off subsidies could provide much of the infrastructure. Least-cost subsidies could cover operators in unprofitable areas. Coming technologies such as TV White Space Devices hold out the promise of cheaper modes of delivery, but the regulations need to be flexible to encourage take-up,” he said.
Working with the authorities
Meanwhile, Ericsson Malaysia & Sri Lanka president Todd Ashton (pic) told Digital News Asia (DNA) that when it comes to how internet.org will roll out in South-East Asia that the programmes are still under discussion and being finalised with the various members of this initiative.
“Ericsson is committed to shaping the ‘Networked Society,’ where everyone and everything will be connected in real time; creating the freedom, empowerment and opportunity to transform society.
“We believe affordable connectivity and Internet access improves people's lives and helps build a more sustainable planet, and therefore we are excited to be participating in the internet.org initiative,” he said in an email response.
On Ericsson’s part, he noted that much of the initial work being envisaged would require close cooperation from technology vendors.
“This being said, we are aware that operators have been engaged by Facebook regarding these challenges and it is probable you will see more formal participation by carriers in the future.
“Facebook and Ericsson are both committed to support and develop the business for the operator community. We are seeking participation from leading operators to engage in various activities related to this initiative, such as optimising performance and designing charging solutions,” he said.
Ashton noted that some of the initiatives already exist, in a way, as Ericsson works with broadband service providers to make their networks more efficient to manage traffic for rural and low-income communities.
“We expect to have even greater efficiencies, with the full ecosystem optimised to manage traffic better,” he said.
He concurred with the AIC’s Ure that access to the Internet is still limited in some areas in the region, adding that Ericsson believes that the already slowing growth rate of Internet adoption would slow even further in time as the internet.org initiative reaches out to “population groups with substantially less financial resources.”
“On the other hand, we do see that smartphone penetration is picking up in this region. Indeed, globally, smartphone adoption is projected to outpace mobile data adoption – so initially we need to work toward reducing the data impact of all these devices connecting to the Internet, by making apps more efficient.
“This will also help reduce that underlying costs of deploying and maintaining networks, making it more affordable,” he said.
Ashton also stressed that Ericsson always welcomes opportunities to work closely with the Malaysian Government and industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).
He noted that the company has contributed its expertise to the development of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), the national plan to transform Malaysia into a high-income economy, via ETP’s the Communications, Content and Infrastructure (CCI) pillar.
“We continue to consult and work with the MCMC and the Malaysian Government to explore other areas where we can collaborate,” he added.
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