Later today Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be appearing onstage at Mobile World Congress — his first appearance at the Barcelona-based event — to talk about bridging the digital divide. Ahead of that, Internet.org, the Facebook-led project to help bring connectivity to developing economies, has unveiled a number of new projects: an education partnership with Nokia and local carrier Airtel, edX and the government in Rwanda called SocialEDU; a project with Unilever in India; and a new Internet.org Innovation Lab with Ericsson in its Menlo Park HQ.
SocialEDU, the pilot project in Rwanda, will give students free access to an online education platform. What’s perhaps most eye-catching about the project is that it will be run using low-cost smartphones and cloud services. Facebook worked with edX to create a MOOC-style experience that will be based around a mobile app that integrates with Facebook. Airtel will provide free data access for those who commit for a year, and Nokia will offer “affordable” (but not free) smartphones. Facebook notes that the government of Rwanda will provide financing that will help schools take advantage of this.
The partnership with Ericsson, meanwhile, will see the launch of the Internet.org Innovation Lab, where developers can test apps either for communities with limited bandwidth, or to help engage those communities better. Borne out of work that Facebook and Ericsson did earlier around a developing economies hackathon, this will involve simulated network environments (but perhaps not actual users).
Finally, the FMCG giant Unilever will be working with Internet.org on a research project aimed specifically at rural communities in India — a country with just 13 percent Internet penetration, and significant hurdles for that connectivity to be fast and reliable, particularly outside of large cities.
The more cynical may believe that companies like Facebook have a very specific commercial purpose to launching projects like this — as growth slows in more mature markets for the social network, the “next billion” is the big opportunity for Facebook. This concept fits nicely with its other huge news, the purchase last week of messaging giant WhatsApp, which has proven to be a popular service in these regions.
But on the other side of the story, there is a wider benefit to projects like this. A study from Deloitte commissioned by Facebook found that improved Internet access in developing economies can increase productivity by up to 25 percent and generate $2.2 trillion more in GDP, and 140 million new jobs.