Facebook and Internet in the developing world — will it happen?

Students at a UNAMID-sponsored computer laboratory at the University of El Geneina in West Darfur, Sudan. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Aug. 23 plans to expand Internet access in the developing world. Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

Facebook’s global partnership to expand Internet access in the developing world is getting a lot of attention, despite the campaign’s initial lack of specifics on how it plans to achieve its goals.

The initiative — which hopes to get two-thirds of the world’s population online through cheaper smartphones that make a more efficient use of current networks — has been both hailed as a step in the right direction and criticized as a thinly veiled business strategy to reached untapped markets in the developing world.

Campaign backers argue that increased Internet access can help the underprivileged seek solutions in terms of food security and disaster preparedness, but the reality, some skeptics tell Devex, is that very poor people in developing countries will just not be able to afford to get online, no matter how cheap they make smartphones or data services. In many remote African rural areas, most people don’t have access to mobile phones, let alone modern units that can surf the web.

That said, decades ago no one thought mobile phones would eventually replace landlines, or that more people would get their news online than on television, so maybe global Internet access is also just a matter of time.

Tool for development

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday that the initiative would strive to redesign mobile apps and improve networks to make them more efficient when connecting to the web.

Zuckerberg noted that today only 2.7 billion people — a third of the world’s population — have regular access to Internet, and the number of new users is growing too slowly to close the gap.

But what will getting online bring to poor villages in conflict-ridden and disaster-prone areas in Latin America, Asia or Africa more concerned about their next meal or better healthcare and education?

“In some ways, access to information do help other more basic services such as agriculture, food distribution and more. Access to clean water and nutrition is of course a priority everywhere, but so is access to information,” said Nils Broström, vice president for communications at Norwegian software firm Opera, one of the campaign’s partners.

Broström explained that now more Indian children check out school information on their smartphones than British youths, and this shows how the Internet can help boost education services, making them reach further and to more people. This also applies for instance to efforts in disaster preparedness, via online weather prediction services.

These services however must be affordable, and operators need to be engaged for the strategy to work.

“The focus will be on aligning incentives within the data ecosystem to make apps and mobile infrastructure more efficient, as well as exploring alternative access models to allow more people to connect,” Broström noted.

Remote populations excluded?

The Asian Development Bank recently celebrated the arrival of Tonga’s first national broadband Internet service, in this case provided by an underwater fiber optic cable linking the sparsely populated archipelago with Australia and the United States.

The project — co-financed by the World Bank — hopes to bring down the cost and improve the connection speed in the country, which until now has suffered high rates and very slow speeds because it relied exclusively on a satellite connection in order to not invest heavily in infrastructure. However, people living on far-flung islands will continue to be offline.

“[The] goal here is for Internet is to be cheaper and used by more people, but to be used in more ways like remote working, you need more bandwidth,” said ADB program director Patricia Espinosa. “You can upgrade existing networks, or set up more, but remote populations will still be excluded.”

She also pointed out that getting the connection is just the first step, as no one has control over what operators will decide to charge for data usage. 

“Here the operators buy data, and they resell that service to their subscribers, but we can’t tell them at what price they should sell the data,” noted Espinosa. “[And] it’s also that what we’re doing here won’t make it much cheaper, but you’ll get four times the speed for what you’re paying. Poor people can’t afford that.”

Mobile phones first

In many African countries, the population is not very concerned about being offline — their daily struggle is to find enough food.

These are the millions of internally displaced people living in camps or in need of humanitarian assistance in several countries all over the continent. For these people, according to an aid worker who has regular contact with them, smartphones are simply a toy used by the well-off in the cities.

But what can really make a difference in their lives is a mobile phone, said the source.

“Mobile phones … are very affordable, and there are very cheap Chinese-made models. Even the most poor people would rather have a mobile phone rather than a smartphone”, explained the aid worker, who added that smartphones in this particular country are limited to the upper-middle class and beyond the reach of 90 percent of the citizens, unless they get remittances from family members that work abroad.

So how can Facebook overcome these challenges?

Maybe it’s a cultural issue, said the source, who mentioned that other poor countries like Indonesia or the Philippines are quite poor but extremely well connected.

In addition, social media is popular everywhere with the youth, and the aid worker mentioned the example in her country of residence of a Facebook page set up by a group of young people that was able to recruit within a few days over 5,000 volunteers to respond to a natural disaster. But those same youngsters, the source warned, will be targeted by the government if they use social media to organize protests.

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About the author

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    Carlos Santamaria

    As associate editor for breaking news, Carlos Santamaria supervises Devex's Manila-based news team and the creation of our daily newsletter. Carlos joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.