Facebook & other tech giants expand internet access in Africa

 

Africa has become a hotbed of experimentation by big American technology companies as well as local start-ups.

Nearly two years ago, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, announced an ambitious effort to connect the world’s poorest people to the Internet.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision — carried out with partners through an entity called Internet.org — encompasses a range of strategies, including lasers, drones and satellites beaming Internet signals down from the sky.

But the most concrete manifestation of Internet.org has been a mobile phone app — more precisely, a suite of applike services built inside one big Internet.org app — that Facebook has been trying to persuade phone carriers around the globe to offer free to users. Although the exact mix varies by country, the highlight of the app is a stripped-down version of Facebook’s social network and its Messenger instant-messaging service, with other useful services also included, such as Wikipedia, news, weather reports, government and social services, and local apps created by entrepreneurs in each region.

Facebook introduced that Internet.org app in Zambia about a year ago, and has added another 16 countries since.

Today, tens of millions of people have tasted the Internet through it, and as of May, more than nine million of those newcomers have become regular users of Internet services, the company says. (Mr. Zuckerberg is likely to release updated data on Wednesday, when Facebook reports quarterly earnings).

“Internet.org is really showing people the value of the Internet,” said Chris Daniels, vice president of Internet.org, in a phone interview last week before heading off to Nairobi to attend the entrepreneurship meeting that the State Department was hosting in conjunction with President Obama’s trip to Kenya.

The next stage, which Mr. Daniels plans to announce at a software developers conference on Monday, is to vastly expand the number of carriers who offer Internet.org. “We’re now ready to scale the solution,” he said. “We want to see more operators in more countries, and multiple operators in a single country.”

According to Mr. Daniels, more than half of Internet.org users want more and end up paying their phone carrier for some additional data services within 30 days (although that could be as small as downloading a photo or video, most of which are excluded from the basic Facebook included in Internet.org). Although he declined to share more precise data, he said that Internet.org was not philanthropy but in fact brought new paying customers to phone carriers.

Internet.org has also come under criticism for being a stalking horse to get carriers to provide Facebook’s social network free to low-income users. Mr. Daniels said the company had opened up Internet.org as a platform and would like to see more local application developers in each country create simple apps that can be included within it.

At the conference on Monday, he will evangelize that mission to African developers. “We continue to look for more local content, and we opened up the platform to make sure that there is more content available,” he said.

Africa has become a hotbed of experimentation by big American technology companies as well as local start-ups.

In addition to Facebook’s efforts, which included developing a Swahili language version of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and IBM have all been promoting tech projects on the continent.

Google, for example, has built a high-speed, fiber-optic Internet network in Kampala, Uganda. But unlike the similar Google Fiber project in major American cities, Google doesn’t offer the service, called Project Link, directly to Ugandans but instead sells access cheap on a wholesale basis to local Internet providers. The result was a sharp drop in the price of Internet access in Kampala as new entrants competed with the traditional carriers to offer services.

“This fiber network in Kampala is worth a thousand drones,” said Steve Song of the Network Startup Resource Center, a nonprofit based at the University of Oregon that has worked with Google on some of its Africa access projects.

Microsoft has been supporting various projects to transmit Internet signals via “white spaces,” which are basically unused portions of the television broadcast spectrum. On Friday, the company announced that it was working with the United States government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation to provide financing to Mawingu Networks to build solar-powered Internet access stations across rural Kenya using white spaces technology.

And IBM said on Saturday that it would begin a formal program to assist entrepreneurs in Nairobi’s iHub innovation and collaboration space.

Kenya has several major international telecommunications cables coming into the country, making it a center of innovation and affordable access, Mr. Song said.

And Africa seems to have brought a bit of kumbaya to the traditional tech rivals. “It’s the one place where I have seen Microsoft and Google and Facebook as allies,” he said.

© The New York Times 2015

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