Only 3.2 billion people, or roughly 43 percent of the world’s population, can access the internet today. In the world’s least developed countries, that number drops to only 9.5 percent.
Facebook wants to change that. For years, the company has called for broader web access, citing technology’s ability to spark broad social and economic progress. Recently it took an important step forward in its efforts, revealing a gigantic data project that used artificial intelligence to figure out who likely has internet access — and even more significantly, who doesn’t. Identifying the latter will make it easier to decide where technology is needed and how to deliver it most effectively.
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The first step for researchers at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab was to get a better handle on where internet access might already exist. They decided to use structures built by humans — buildings, roads, and other infrastructure — as a proxy for where people might live and get online.
Armed with a specific sense of where people are, Facebook envisions someday using solar-powered drones in the stratosphere to bring internet to hundreds of millions of people who lack access due to weak infrastructure, poverty, or unequal resource allocation. The drones will also carry equipment that can form high-speed connections using laser beams. The idea is that Facebook will create aerial chains with the drones to link several rural areas to the internet. The drone nearest an urban area would use its laser to hook into the global internet, and that connectivity would be passed down the line to drones over rural areas using the laser links.
If Facebook succeeds, it will have solved a crisis that can affect not only individuals’ ability to like and share, but also their upward economic mobility. (Facebook’s Free Basics service, part of a larger initiative to bring the world more internet, already is providing mobile-enabled users with websites that are accessible without data charges.) “Being left on the outside can have a profound effect,” says Danica Radovanovic, a digital media specialist and internet researcher who has spent years considering the digital divide between the developed and undeveloped world.
Of course, Facebook’s actions have long raised questions about whether it plans to expand internet access or simply turn Facebook into the internet. Last year, an internet researcher noticed that focus groups of Indonesians and Africans have begun confusing Facebook with the internet — and a Quartz-conducted survey found that a majority of respondents in Nigeria, Indonesia, India, and Brazil agree that “Facebook is the internet.” But Facebook has competition: Google, too, is in the pilot phases of a program to get “balloon-powered internet for everyone” through its ambitious (and whimsically named) Project Loon.
My 2 cents:
Facebook’s internet crusade is know as Zuckerberg’s pet project and is outwardly attributed to the hacker company’s deep commitment to spreading the internet wealth in underprivileged regions. However recently, Zuckerberg’s good intentions have come into question given that Facebook.org is acting as more of a gateway drug to Facebook than as the social mission it is often portrayed to be. You can’t blame Facebook for trying to make a buck and help at the same time, especially with unspoken concerns about keeping Facebook membership growth in light of perceived dropouts in the future, but you shouldn’t be surprised to find Google at every cross-section of money and PR out there.