News & Views

Connectivity, not just social connections

by Chloe Markowicz

The internet was abuzz last week with news of Facebook buying Oculus Rift for $2bn. Facebook might have paid the big bucks for the virtual reality headset manufacturer, but I would argue that its purchase of a small company called Ascenta, for the much less princely sum of $2m, is far more important.

Ascenta, which is based in Somerset not Silicon Valley, makes solar-powered unmanned aircraft. And while Facebook teaming up with Oculus Rift raises the possibility of a virtual reality social network, Facebook’s investment in drones offers the potential to bring the internet to the 4 billion people around the world who can’t currently access it, a decidedly more important endeavour.

Mark Zuckerberg explained (in a Facebook post, of course) how his company is building drones, satellites and lasers to beam the internet from the sky, with the goal of delivering connectivity to everyone. You can find out more about science behind the technology in the video below. The brains behind Ascenta will be developing connectivity aircraft, and will join experts from the fields of aerospace and communications technology, including former NASA engineers, who work at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab inventing new technology so people in hard to reach parts of the world can get online. Facebook is one of founding partners of Internet.org, a global alliance of companies, including Nokia and Samsung, dedicated to bringing affordable internet access to the two thirds of the world’s population that can’t get online.


That’s a pretty big goal, and Facebook’s ambitions have been met with some cynicism, with critics arguing that bringing the internet to more people around the world is just part of Zuckerberg’s primary goal of getting more people on Facebook, extending the platform’s existing user base of 1.2 billion to parts of Africa that were until now unfamiliar with the big blue thumb. As Ovum analyst Mark Little told the BBC: ‘Zuckerberg is pushing this as an altruistic way of connecting more people in the world - the net as a basic human right - but by increasing the total of net connections it also increases Facebook's members and the amount of sharing done, which in turn creates more space for advertising and drives its revenues in a massive way.’

Facebook isn’t the only tech company out there making it their goal to spread the internet around the world. Google, for example, is trying to achieve the same through projects like Google Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to connect people in rural areas. Contagious was impressed enough with Google Loon that we put the balloon on our Issue 36 cover last year (admittedly, we were also motivated by the fact that it made for a pretty gorgeous cover image). But Google has been met with much the same criticisms as Facebook, namely that its actions are self-motivated.

And when faced with Google and Facebook’s connectivity endeavours people have also asked how does access to the internet compare with access to clean drinking water, healthcare, and basic sanitation? Sure, back in 2011 the UN declared that disconnecting people from the internet was a human rights violation and against international law, but is it a less important human right? Microsoft founder Bill Gates might be a big believer in the digital revolution, but speaking to Bloomberg Businesweek about Google Loon he said: ‘When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.’

Not to go against Bill Gates, but I’m not sure that’s a fair argument. You can’t pit one human right against another. One philanthropic cause can’t outrank another. It’s true that the people who live in many parts of the world that don’t have access to clean water or electricity have more pressing concerns than being able to get online. But at the same time access to the internet will definitely help the efficiency of aid work in hard-to-reach areas.  

And as Zuckerberg said in a paper detailing his investment in connective drone technology, the internet enables people to ‘participate in the knowledge economy’, helping them gain access to jobs, healthcare, education and financial services and helping them ‘have a greater say in their societies’. The Facebook founder cites a study by Deloitte that found that the internet is an important driver of economic growth in developing countries and he argues that ‘Expanding internet access could create another 140 million new jobs, lift 160 million people out of poverty, and reduce child mortality by hundreds of thousands of lives.

Internet.org already has quite a good track record of getting people in developing countries connected, having managed to give 3 million people access to mobile data in the Philippines and Paraguay. Whatever Facebook's motivations are behind its work with Internet.org, and I think they probably do go beyond the altruistic, it’s inconsequential. Getting people online in far-flung parts of the world will improve their lives by giving them access to information and opportunities. So even if these people ultimately end up Liking posts and reading news feeds, I hope Zuckerberg succeeds.