CEO Mark Zuckerberg has put forth what he calls a “rough plan” to bring the internet to the next 5 billion people (there are currently 2.7 billion people online, or roughly a third of the world’s population).
The announcement has a slightly hyperloopy feel to it, as it’s a little bit unclear on how the plan would be executed. But it’s a blueprint that’s extremely important to Facebook, since one obvious limitation to its growth is simply the number of people who are on the internet.
For almost 10 years, Facebook has been on a mission to make the world more open and connected. Today we connect more than 1.15 billion people each month, but as we started thinking about connecting the next 5 billion, we realised something important: the vast majority of people in the world don’t have access to the internet. Today, only 2.7 billion people are online — a little more than one third of the world. That is growing by less than 9% each year, but that’s slow considering how early we are in the internet’s development. Even though projections show most people will get smartphones in the next decade, most people still won’t have data access because the cost of data remains much more expensive than the price of a smartphone.
Below, I’ll share a rough proposal for how we can connect the next 5 billion people, and a rough plan to work together as an industry to get there. We’ll discuss how we can make internet access more affordable by making it more efficient to deliver data, how we can use less data by improving the efficiency of the apps we build and how we can help businesses drive internet access by developing a new model to get people online. I call this a “rough plan” because, like many long term technology projects, we expect the details to evolve. It may be possible to achieve more than we lay out here, but it may also be more challenging than we predict. The specific technical work will evolve as people contribute better ideas, and we welcome all feedback on how to improve this. Connecting the world is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. This is just one small step toward achieving that goal. I’m excited to work together to make this a reality.
You can download the plan here, but the basic gist is that in addition to the obvious needs to build out more infrastructure, Zuckerberg argues that there’s more that can be done to reduce the amount of data used to transmit information, making content and apps less burdensome on the infrastructure.
We believe it’s possible to sustainably provide free access to basic internet services in a way that enables everyone with a phone to get on the internet and join the knowledge economy while also enabling the industry to continue growing profits and building out this infrastructure. Today, the global cost of delivering data is on the order of 100 times too expensive for this to be economically feasible yet. The cost of subsidizing even basic services for free would exceed many people’s monthly income and it would be extremely difficult for the industry to build a profitable model. However, with an organised effort, we think it is reasonable to expect the overall efficiency of delivering data to increase by 100x in the next 5-10 years. This will come from two types of innovation: bringing down the underlying costs of delivering data, and using less data by building more efficient apps. If the industry can achieve a 10x improvement in each of these areas, which we believe is possible, then it becomes economically reasonable to offer free basic services to those who cannot afford them and start to sustainably deliver on the promise of connectivity as a human right. A key constraint here is to define which basic internet services should have free data, and which require a data plan. If we get this right, then it will be possible to enable the most people to get on the internet while also sustainably generating the most profits for the industry.
There are a few factors that go into our definition of basic internet services: Basic services need to be non-data-intensive, which means primarily text-based services and very simple apps like weather. Data-intensive experiences like video, streaming music, high resolution photos, websites with media and large files or app downloads consume the vast majority of all data. For perspective, all of the text in this document is less than 0.1MB and a 30 second video can easily be 50-100 MB. Basic services also need to be tools that people use to discover other content.
These services should have the property that by making data for them free, people will discover more new content and use meaningfully more data than they would have if they didn’t have access to these basic services. Services like messaging, social networks, search engines and Wikipedia fit this definition well, but we’re not prescribing any specific set of basic internet services. Instead, we believe that the more efficient we can make this model, the more access the industry can collectively provide to basic services. And even beyond basic services, all of the technology improvements and efficiencies will make it easier for everyone to access all internet services.
The rough plan focuses on three important levers:
1) Making internet access affordable by making it more efficient to deliver data.
2) Using less data by improving the efficiency of the apps and experiences we use.
3) Helping businesses drive internet access by developing a new model to get people online.