Social network Facebook has ambitious plans to connect people to the Internet. What projects is Mark Zuckerberg pursuing here, and how are people viewing them?Laura Melchior
Facebook wants to push the networking of the world forward with various projects. But the company is not completely selfless in this effort.
From the very start, Facebook's mission was to network people together. What began at Harvard University between classmates is now expanding to the entire world. Mark Zuckerberg's new goals are in developing regions such as India and Africa. Some two-thirds of the world's population currently has no Internet access, and Facebook is pursuing a variety of projects to bring these people online.
The Internet.org initiative
The Facebook initiative called Internet.org, in which Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung are also taking part, seeks to bring the Internet to people in developing countries. Because around four billion people in the world have no way to go online. Facebook pursues various projects to provide people with Internet access under the umbrella of this initiative.
In regions where the infrastructure already exists, Facebook takes on the costs of Internet access with its Free Basics service. The Zuckerberg empire cooperates with various mobile communication operators in this area. But at what price? Users don't need to spend any money for their Internet service, but they pay in other ways. Facebook does provide them with Internet at no cost, but mainly with access to select websites – in particular to Facebook services. That way the social media giant can make sure users only consume the content they want, and not offers from the competition.
Recently the Free Basics Simulator for developers was developed, and should make it easier to develop content for Free Basics. The simulator shows how services can look on Free Basics and how well the websites would perform on relatively old devices. It also provides demographic data to help determine who uses the services. This lets developers learn much more about their target group in each region.
There are plenty of critics speaking out against Free Basics. Recently there were hundreds of thousands of email protests against the Zuckerberg company's zero-rating plans in India. With zero-rating, certain Internet services, generally partners to the telecommunications provider, are given preferential treatment. Their websites open faster and their use doesn't count towards the data limit.
In the final analysis, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) prohibited zero-rating in India in February of this year, considering this practice to be counter to net neutrality. A fact that cannot be denied, because net neutrality implies that all data in the web receives equal treatment. This is not the case with zero-rating or Free Basics.
At this year's F8 conference, Zuckerberg said the following: "Now I'm starting to see people and nations turning inward – building walls and even cutting access to the Internet. It takes courage to choose hope over fear."
Facebook even has those areas of the world without any Internet infrastructure currently in place in its sights. The company is working on different projects and trying out various methods to network these regions.
Facebook has been working in its research center for some time on an unmanned drone that can provide Internet to people in remote areas. Last July the company presented the first prototype to the public.
The drone has about the same wingspan as a Boeing 737, but weighs only 400 kilograms. According to Facebook, the drone is meant to stay aloft for 90 days running, while circling within a radius of three kilometers. Every day it rises from 18,000 meters to 28,000 in altitude, and then drops back to the starting altitude to save energy.
A laser developed by Facebook, which by its own account can transmit information in the double-digit gigabits, will send data to the drone from a distance of more than 16 kilometers. The drone then transmits the Internet signal to the homes it's flying over. In the area where the drone is moving, this should create an Internet connection across a perimeter of 80 kilometers.
At the F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg presented two additional projects that are meant to contribute to the networking of the world. Terragraph is a network made of nodes that would be used in densely built regions, such as are found in India. The special transmitters can penetrate through buildings with no trouble at a frequency of 60 GHz. Using this technology, Facebook wants to ensure that homeowners get broadband access without needing to wire their homes for Internet.
The infrastructure design is for a dense grid of nodes at a distance of 200 to 250 meters from one another. To start with, however, Terragraph will for example supply WLAN hotspots in exposed sites where no cable Internet connection is possible.
For now Terragraph is still in the test phase. But Facebook has already developed the first prototypes, which the social media giant is testing together with partners.
Also new is the Aries project (for Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum). Aries is an attempt to increase the efficiency of antennae and the radio spectrum, Futurezone explains. A process known as spatial multiplexing should make it possible to open 24 data channels with one antenna. And 96 of these antennae are to be installed on a single tower. This project's focus is on expanding broadband Internet in rural areas with widely distanced receivers.
According to Facebook, 97 percent of the world's population lives within 40 kilometers of a large city, and the Zuckerberg empire sees this as an opportunity to bring these people Internet access using Aries. The company wants to supply other areas of the world that are not as close to big cities using unmanned drones like Aquila.
Zuckerberg's company has now founded its own department to develop the hardware for its projects, known as “Building 8.” This laboratory is meant to support Facebook's mission of connecting all the people in the world together by manufacturing the necessary hardware.
Zuckerberg chose none other than top executive Regina Dugan, lured away from his competitor Google, to head up the lab. Facebook will invest hundreds of millions of US dollars in the unit and hire hundreds of employees in the next few years, according to Zuckerberg.
The CEO expects to achieve groundbreaking successes through cooperation with other Facebook areas such as AI and VR.
To listen to Mark Zuckerberg, he wants to make the world a better place – particularly for his daughter. If he could bring Internet access to the some four billion people who don't currently have it, he might get a little closer to his goal. Because it's not just about spending your time on the World Wide Web. An Internet connection also gives access to education, local information, news and jobs. These factors could significantly impact and improve the lives of many people around the world.
The other side of the coin is the untapped economic potential of this audience. They are largely untouched by digitization, and therefore of great economic interest to businesses. Everyone would like to be the first in these brand-new markets. Facebook is using its many projects to try to reach this goal.
It seems that the resistance Zuckerberg met with in India was far greater than what he expected. He apparently didn't realize that this one-sided access might make people feel used, like a means to an end.
But his projects have had a better reception elsewhere. Many are happy for the opportunity of free access to the Internet.
Facebook shows just how happy people are at internet.org. Videos document emotional personal stories about how people's lives were improved with access to the Internet.