Skip to main content

Can Zuckerberg really connect 5 billion people?

By Jason A. Buckweitz, Special to CNN
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Sat August 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark Zuckerberg is starting an initiative to bring Internet access to 5 billion people
  • Jason Buckweitz: Internet.org is very ambitious but there are major hurdles to overcome
  • He says that connectivity is unaffordable for most people in the developing world
  • Buckweitz: In places like Africa, there is not much disposable income left after paying for food

Editor's note: Jason A. Buckweitz is the associate director of the Columbia University's Institute for Tele-Information, a research center focusing on strategy, management and policy issues in telecommunications.

(CNN) -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's new initiative, Internet.org, is a global partnership aimed at "making Internet access available to all."

Is that an attainable goal? Perhaps. It's certainly very ambitious. There are several major hurdles to overcome.

Opinion: Zuckerberg's big idea is no charity

For many of the 5 billion people who live in less developed parts of the world, the two largest barriers to becoming Internet-connected are the cost of devices and the cost of connection. The next obstacle is the expense of maintaining a device. In many countries, electricity is still difficult to come by, with brownouts common.

In Africa, for example, people experience an average of 56 days of power outage a year, almost 15% of the year. Even if a network is running, the cost of electricity itself is very expensive.

The cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity in Africa can vary anywhere from $0.06 in South Africa to $0.68 in Chad. A phone like an iPhone 5 requires about 3.73 kWh a year to charge depending on use, meaning it could cost as much as $2.53 a year to just charge the phone. While this does not sound like a lot of money, the average income for a person in Chad is about $2,000, which means that 0.1% of annual income would be spent just on the electricity to power a phone.

Of course, this cost increases with more use. Typical usage in developing areas like Africa focuses on low consumption actions like sending SMS messages, phone calls and mobile banking. More demanding usage like streaming video, downloading and playing games, and spending time connecting on social networking sites, would require the most energy intensive part of the phone -- the screen -- to be on longer, which would raise the yearly costs of charging the phone.

Zuckerberg's Internet plan realistic?
Zuckerberg pushes web access for all

Increasing the battery life and decreasing the energy requirements of transmission are great goals to strive for -- as Internet.org plans to pursue -- but they do not address the underlying issue of being able to afford a charge in the first place.

When the average yearly income is so low in developing countries, there is not much disposable income after housing, food and transportation costs. The fact of the matter is that most of the 5 billion people who are poor would rather spend their money on basic necessities like food and medicine than on the Internet.

For example, a few years ago I visited an orphanage in Lusaka, Zambia, that had no Internet connection even though a major fiber line is about 50 yards away. While the heads of the orphanage understood the importance of the Internet, and while many of the children would have liked to explore the Web, funds were better spent caring for the orphans. Even giving the connectivity away does not help pay all the other costs associated with accessing the Internet.

If we really want to get the next 5 billion people connected, we will have to steer governmental and consumer electronic interests to work together on a solution. Innovating new and inventive techniques to provide infrastructure, low-cost devices and energy generation stand the best chance of making a difference. Maybe Internet.org can look into devices like kinetic chargers, solar powered cell phones, and pico cells, which can make a far bigger impact to connect the underserved populations of the world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason A. Buckweitz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT