Free internet for Africa on cards

17 November 2014 - 02:00 By Christopher Williams, © The Telegraph
INSTANT MESSENGER: Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook company has paid $19-billion to team up with WhatsApp
INSTANT MESSENGER: Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook company has paid $19-billion to team up with WhatsApp
Image: Reuters

Facebook is in an advanced stage of talks with UK satellite operator Avanti about a ground-breaking project that would provide free internet access across swathes of Africa.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says he is determined to connect the developing world.

It is expected that a deal between Avanti and the social network, under the auspices of its internet.org initiative, will be announced soon.

Internet.org aims "to bring the internet to the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't have it".

Avanti, which owns two broadband satellites positioned over Africa, plans to launch two more in the next three years to increase capacity and coverage. It provides internet access over a high-frequency radio link to a satellite dish and a base station that converts the signal and feeds it into an ordinary Wi-Fi network.

According to internet.org, if developing economies had the standard of internet access enjoyed in rich countries global productivity would be boosted by 25% and 160million people would be lifted out of poverty.

Facebook turned to the British company after an appeal to network operators to help spread internet access received a cool reception.

In February Zuckerberg gave the keynote speech at the cellular industry's biggest conference and called for help in creating "a basic dial tone for the internet" that would enable people to access information services anywhere.

He also wanted them to give their subscribers free access to Facebook, with no charge to Facebook, arguing that that would spread digital literacy and drive mobile-device internet use.

Zuckerberg said: "The reasons you might not have connectivity is cost, but then there is also the question of why you would want to spend your money.

"You have never had access to the internet so you don't even know why you would want it."

Network operators balked, however, in spite of Zuckerberg's charm offensive. The conference was soon after Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp, which is eating into network operators' text messaging and call revenues.

Vittorio Colao, chief executive of Vodafone, a key player in the developing world, rejected Zuckerberg's appeal, saying there was "no reason I should give away my network's capacity for free".

By signing a commercial deal with Avanti, Facebook can bypass the network operators entirely and cover a massive area of Africa at a relatively low cost.

The Avanti solution is also likely to be quicker to set up and more reliable than some of the more exotic and experimental technologies in development.

Google, for instance, is working on Project Loon, which involves high-altitude balloons.

Facebook itself is testing solar-powered drones but has said they will not be ready for deployment for years.

Facebook and Avanti declined to comment.

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