Internet.org. a global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts with the collective mission of bringing the entire planet online took a step forward recently with the release of an app affording limited free mobile Internet access to users in Zambia.
While around 85 percent of the world's people are located in areas with cellular network connectivity, only 30 percent access the Internet. In Zambia, just 15 percent have online access.
Mobile networks, along with aerial access points, are key to helping people get online in remote areas and other locations where Internet access is difficult to come by.
Through the Internet.org app, consumers in Zambia can access local information, as well as health and employment services, without having to pay for data use. Internet.org hopes to help people "discover valuable services they might not have otherwise," said Product Management Director Guy Rosen.
The first people to have access to the free service are Airtel subscribers in Zambia, through the Internet.org Android app, the Internet.org mobile site, and the Facebook for Android app. Internet.org is planning to expand to other regions in the future.
Users will have limited access to services like Facebook (a key Internet.org partner), Facebook Messenger, Google Search, Wikipedia, AccuWeather and Airtel. They also can access women's health services, a website explaining Zambia's governance, job banks, and a UNICEF service providing information on HIV and AIDS.
However, there are questions over how truly useful some of these services are. For instance, while users can carry out Google searches, reports suggest they are unable to click through search result links to view the actual content without paying for a data plan. Users can access any page on Wikipedia at no cost, however, and internal Wikipedia links are free to browse. Facebook competitors such as Twitter have been left out, despite their capacity to connect users and provide valuable information.
Internet.org also is working on plans to beam Internet access from the sky using drones, satellites, and lasers. Google, meanwhile, has its own plans to expand Internet access through its data fee-less service Free Zone, providing access to Web browsing via Google Search, Gmail, and Google Plus in the Philippines, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka. It also is planning to bring Internet access to remote regions through its Project Loon network of connected high-altitude balloons, as well as through satellites.
"Not to be too cynical, but I seldom see much pure altruism in industry-led efforts like Internet.org," said Charles King, principal at Pund-IT. "Instead, companies are essentially early investors in emerging markets they hope will someday become financially self-sustaining and profitable.