You really have to be naive if you are thinking that the world’s biggest social network’s CEO has come all the way to India with no business interest. As we know Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in India for a two-day visit. Apart from other reasons for his maiden official visit to India, pushing Internet.org is his priority like it has been in other emerging countries since last year. His meeting with the President of Mexico was on the same.
On the first day of his visit Mark was in Delhi delivering his keynote at the first Internet.org summit. The summit bringing together experts, officials and industry leaders to focus on ways to deliver more Internet services for people in languages other than English. The twenty-minute keynote from Mark highlighted why internet should also be the basic right in this era and how India’s more than a billion population which is still not on the internet can benefit from it.
Facebook in association with six mobile operators (Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera Software, and Qualcomm) had started the Internet.org project last year keeping the focus on emerging markets. Facebook had realized pretty early that the future is mobile driven and its next billion users will come from emerging markets like India where internet penetration has been a challenge due to various reasons.
To overcome this problem and jump the red tape of government bureaucracy, Facebook launched project Internet.org that promises to bring internet to two-thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it via drones, satellites, lasers and more.
Talking at the summit yesterday, Mark shared that India is set for a new jump in the technology space which would be driven by youth but it can’t be without embracing the internet. It is a known fact that India missed out in the web revolution but is trying to catch up in the mobile wave. Even though the country is the fastest growing smartphone network, data costs are high and the average broadband speed is still bad.
Infrastructure has been a known issue and the present Modi government has already pulled up its socks to make the country digitally connected but social challenges that are stopping the country’s adoption are alarming.
Mark shared that according to their research, “69% of Indians who have never accessed Internet don’t have enough reasons why they should use it and what benefit can the Internet provide them.” The only way one can motivate this section is when you show them the value Internet can provide as mobile is already doing by connecting people.
Replicating Zambia’s success in India
Creating a free service like 911 for basic needs could be a solution, states Mark. The success of the Internet.org app in Zambia with Airtel can be replicated in India.
In alliance with Airtel, the Internet.org app provides its subscribers access to a set of basic Internet services for free. The app provides features such as AccuWeather to Google search, Wikipedia, a job search site as well as a breadth of health information. Facebook’s own app, along with its Messenger service, is also included. The app works on Android phones as well as the simple “feature phones.”
The app is for free and Facebook and Internet.org don’t pay at all. Instead, the free access acts as an on-ramp to Airtel’s data plans. If users click-through to links outside of the services or use other apps, Internet.org will show users a roadblock screen that warns them they’ll be expending their data plan or need to buy one. The same works for Airtel as it can earn money for data plans by creating interest.
The same model has been applied in the Philippines, Paraguay, and Tanzania which has helped around 3 million people with no access connect to the Internet. Filipino Network Globe is already seeing a good increase in subscribers after being a part of the program. So there isn’t a reason why it might not work in India.
While this deal will make operators who have been really worried happy with the growth of internet companies and apps, this might create an environment of monopoly and the favoritism of choice of services that would be included in the app, argued Medianama.
Definitely this also means that Facebook which has 100 million active users in the country is also looking to grow its base with this initiative but the choice of services remain in the operators hand. This means that if Airtel is the selected operator in India, messaging app Hike could also find its feet in the internet.org app alongside WhatsApp.
In all this the Indian Government’s say cannot be ignored. The way the NDA government has kept its focus on the digital growth in the country, I wouldn’t be surprised if a new contest on apps is launched on the MyGov citizen portal. We have already seen how Narendra Modi in a short period has nurtured the platform by inviting community engagement.
Will startups be affected?
Too early to say but Internet.org app is talking about very basic services to create interest on the Internet. So one would really doubt if features like YouTube or Gaana.com will be there and as said the decision would be in the hands of the operator and not on Facebook.
Besides Mark also highlighted a known but missed out fact that most Indian users don’t access internet due to the lack of relevant local language content. According to Facebook, 60 percent of Indians are not online due the lack of services and content in spoken languages.
Earlier this year a joint study by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB International stated that regional language content availability can boost the growth of Internet in India by 24 percent. The study identified local language as the single largest driver of internet growth in rural areas.
To fill this gap, Mark unveiled a $1 million fund to encourage developers to develop applications in local content for emerging economies. The Innovation challenge will encourage the development of apps, websites, online services. The award prize is $250,000, which will be presented to the app, website or service that the judges determine best meets the needs of one of the four designated population categories: women, students, farmers and migrant workers (four awards total).
The Innovation Challenge Award winners will also be eligible to receive a package of tools and services worth up to $60,000 from Facebook’s FbStart program. In addition, two apps, websites or services designed for each of the four specified population categories will receive an Impact Award prize in the amount of $25,000. Ample push by Facebook for startups to develop apps that could meet the demands of the local language content.
Mark has accepted that in the longer run getting more people on the Internet will help Facebook but that doesn’t mean that Facebook has to be included in each country as a service.
I don’t see that Internet.org is going to hinder competition; Google which is also working on bringing internet to the emerging markets can also come with a similar or a better service. By pushing Internet.org, Facebook has pushed the button to make internet available to everyone. Now it is up to us - other businesses and startups on how we can develop content, apps for the people who are missing out.
Internet.org makes complete business sense for Facebook but it also makes sense for India; it creates an opportunity for the billion people who are still not connected to the Internet by making it a human right along with food, water and shelter.