"Connectivity is a human right." -- Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg knows a thing or two about the Internet. After all, he's piloted Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) into a social media Goliath that is increasingly used to share one-to-one, one-to-some, and one-to-everyone content.
As a result, Facebook has a billion users, billions and billions of dollars in revenue, and billions of dollars in earnings. But, Facebook has a problem. In order to fuel future growth it needs to tap into the billions of people on the planet who don't currently have Internet access.
So, Zuckerberg is partnering with some of the biggest companies in technology, including Nokia and Qualcomm, on Internet.org, an organization dedicated to overcoming the obstacles that are blocking Internet use in developing nations and that (intriguingly) may revolutionize healthcare along the way.
Why this is a long shot
Zuckerberg will need every ounce of his think-big attitude to overcome the challenges associated with bringing the Internet to developing countries.
That's because people in impoverished nations not only lack access to the Internet, but also to healthcare education and healthcare providers.
To put Zuckerberg's challenge in better perspective, consider that in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 900 million people live, the average person lives to just 56 years of age, well below the average European, who typically makes it to 80.
That means that people living in these regions are far more focused on basic survival than they are on accessing social media.
Internet.org has its hands full. Many countries don't have the infrastructure necessary to support Internet access and in those countries that do have the nuts and bolts necessary, the cost of accessing the Internet is a big barrier.
So, Internet.org launched an app in July that attempts to skirt those challenges.
Since the app is designed for mobile devices, it leverages the fact that 85% of the world's population lives in areas with cellular coverage. And since the app provides access to a suite of eight Internet sites for free, it overcomes worries that Internet access would be too pricey for people in these regions.
In order to make Internet.org's app highly relevant in developing markets it includes access to two important health education services -- Facts for Life and the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, or MAMA. Those sites provide health care information on immunization, HIV, and childbirth. Education on those subjects could prove life-changing in these markets given that globally there are 9 million preventable childhood deaths every year.
Zuckerberg, whose wife Priscilla Chan is a pediatrician, believes that access to this health care information could have a big impact in countries like Zambia, which is the first to gain access to the Internet.org app.
At the Mobile World Congress 2014 in February, Zuckerberg outlined the mission of Internet.org, in part, by saying, "If you increase the number of people in emerging markets that have access to the Internet... you could decrease the childhood mortality rate by 7%."
Zuckerberg's optimism may be justified. According to MAMA's research in Bangladesh, 69% of survey respondents that use MAMA reported attending at least four antenatal care visits during their pregnancy, versus 32% nationally, and 65% of respondents reported attending a postnatal care visit, versus 27% nationally. Such an improvement could be game-changing in countries like Zambia, which has the 21st worst maternal mortality rate and the 17th worst infant mortality rate in the world.
An even longer long shot?
Using Internet.org's app to deliver valuable healthcare education is a great first step because it encourages people to seek out medical care. But that knowledge only goes so far when doctors are scarce.
So while Internet.org is a great starting point in boosting healthcare utilization in rural and impoverished markets, significantly more will still need to be done to improve healthcare access.
Zuckerberg thinks he may have an answer to that problem, too. In March, Zuckerberg acquired virtual reality gaming company Oculus VR in a deal that cost Facebook $2 billion.
Zuckerberg thinks that Oculus' virtual devices could someday become the next big computing platform, displacing mobile. If he's right, then virtual devices could eventually be used by patients in developing nations to "visit" doctors located anywhere on the planet.
Internet.org and Oculus VR may have the potential to change millions of lives, but they could also be brilliant long-term investments in Facebook's future. Zuckerberg's intent is to break down barriers to free-flowing communication; but in the process Internet.org may also end up saving lives and helping people in developing markets live longer. If so, Zuckerberg may discover that the next billion Facebook users end up coming from some of the planet's least likely places.