Facebook(NASDAQ:FB) plans to bring Internet access to the 5 billion or so people around the world who currently do not have it.
As part of the Internet.org initiative, which it founded, the social media giant has rolled out free, limited Internet access in six states in India. Partnered with Reliance Communications, a top wireless provider in the South Asian nation, Internet.org has made its package of basic services (which includes Facebook) available to over 1 million people in India. This follows an earlier release of the free service in a handful of African countries and Colombia.
"Reliance customers in six Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Maharaashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and Telangana) will now have access to more than three dozen services ranging from news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information," according to a release posted by the organization.
The move is part of a slow rollout of the service, which has a goal to spread Internet access via wireless phones. According to Internet.org, over 85% of the world population lives in areas with a mobile phone signal, but only 30% has access to the Internet.
Internet.org describes itself as "a global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts who are working together to bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't have it." Facebook has been a driving force behind the partnership, but other technology companies are involved, including Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, and Samsung.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a strong belief that Internet access is a basic right. Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in July 2014 in which he noted that because Internet adoption only grows by 9% a year, normal expansion will not bring access to the unserved for many years to come.
Our society has already decided that certain basic services over the phone should be free. Anyone can call 911 to get medical attention or report a crime even if you haven't paid for a phone plan. In the future, everyone should have access to basic Internet services as well, even if they haven't paid for a data plan. And just as basic phone services encouraged more people to get phones, basic Internet services will encourage many more people to get a data plan.
Of course, Facebook is not being completely altruistic (nor should it be). Internet.org will bring the social network millions of new users in the developing world. Those customers might not be worth much money on an individual basis but collectively, their value could be great.