Facebook’s chief executive recently addressed the UN, calling on the group to make universal Internet access a global priority and announcing that Facebook will help bring Internet access to refugee camps worldwide. Google announced that it will bring public WiFi networks to 400 train stations in India, enabling a projected 10 million passengers to log on to the Internet each day. And Microsoft said that it wants to help bring broadband access to 500,000 villages across India.
The biggest tech companies in the United States are all rolling out initiatives to get millions more people online around the world. Their moves reveal that not only is Internet access considered a basic necessity, even a basic right, but that expansion into rapidly emerging markets is as important to their growth of their businesses as to their social agendas.
Vindu Goel reports for The New York Times that India is replacing China as the next frontier for American tech companies, which are often blocked from China itself or frustrated by the demands of its government. While Chinese president Xi Jinping was unwavering about stringent Internet policies during a recent meeting with tech executives in Seattle, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was “on a charm offensive” during a visit to Tesla, a dinner with Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Sundar Pichai of Google, and a town hall discussion with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
“For India to keep making progress, it needs to be a leader online,” Modi said during the Facebook event. He acknowledged that big American tech companies, like Facebook, aren’t connecting people to the Internet out of pure altruism, but told Zuckerberg, “I hope this will not just be something to enhance your company’s bank balance.”
Goel reports that as recently as two years ago, it was hard to imagine India’s rise as a digital nation. Internet penetration was modest, mobile phone networks were slow, and smartphones were not nearly as ubiquitous as basic feature phones. Today, India conducts more mobile Google searches than any country other than the United States, and the number of smartphone users is expected to reach 168 million this year, with the number of Internet users overall projected to reach 277 million.
To reach the millions of people who aren’t yet connected, Facebook, for instance, is offering a basic version of its service that’s optimized for simple phones and slow networks. Under the Internet.org initiative, it’s also working with local wireless carriers to provide a bundle of free services, which include access to news, employment information, and text-only versions of its messaging app and social network for users who can’t afford a data plan.
The challenges of bringing the Internet to India are still numerous. Internet.org has been accused of working against net neutrality and favoring Facebook’s own services, government agencies try to censor content they find objectionable, and making money on digital advertising is difficult in the country. Many tech companies have already said that they’re focusing on getting people online now and making revenue later. Google, for instance, wants to get 500 million Indians online by 2017, primarily via Android smartphones.
Only one in six Indians knows enough English to surf the web in English, and there are few web pages in Hindi or in any of India’s 21 other official languages. So Google, Facebook, and Twitter have added support for more Indian languages and are pushing developers and users to create local-language content. India’s mobile connections can run at a hundredth of the speed that Americans expect, so Google is compressing web pages on its servers to use 80% less data and load four times as quickly. Many people in India have never used the Internet, so Google is sending female tutors, who travel by bicycle, to teach women in rural villages about the Internet with solar-powered tablets and smartphones.
Hundreds of millions of Indians have basic phones that can’t run apps, but they can receive text messages for free. So Twitter, using technology created by ZipDial, enables users to see the tweets of politicians or brands by calling a phone number, hanging up, and then receiving the tweets delivered as a text. Anyone with a phone that can receive texts can now get tweets from Modi and a dozen other officials and ministries.
But as Alice Truong reports for Quartz, there’s a catch with Google’s plan to install WiFi access points at rail stations in India. The catch is that the WiFi access, which will reach more than 10 million potential users, will be “free to start.” But Truong notes that “free” isn’t part of the long-term vision for the project. Google’s Pichai explains that the company intends to make the project self-sustainable, so that it can expand to more locations in the future. It’s unclear, of course, what WiFi access could cost when that does happen. But it’s possible that the fee could place Internet access yet again out of reach for the people that Google is trying to connect to the Internet.
As Internet service providers, and those who build the websites, apps, and social networks that have grown immensely popular in the west, expand their networks to remote locations around the globe, the people who are coming online for the first time are likely to come from poorer households and speak languages other than English. Much of the world lacks Internet access, and the so-called digital divide most dramatically affects people in the least-developed countries. Finding an equitable way to help people around the world reap the benefits of Internet connectivity will likely require a more nuanced approach than American tech companies are used to taking in the United States. It remains to be seen how successful they’ll be in adapting to new markets and delivering the connectivity they currently champion.