Can Facebook bring Internet access to 5 billion more people?

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Mark Zuckerberg wants to add 5 billion more Facebook friends.

Well, not exactly. But he does want to expand the Internet’s reach to 5 billion more residents of this increasingly interconnected planet earth.

In a white paper titled “A Focus on Efficiencyreleased this week under the aegis of Internet.org, a consortium of companies who’ve adopted the same aim of expanding online access, the Facebook founder outlines a plan to expand technology reach and the importance of the Internet as a human right, a way to pull away from a zero-sum resource-based economy and plug into its knowledge-based counterpart.

The plan depends on a couple critical innovations: To bring down the underlying costs of delivering information and to use less data by making apps more efficient, Zuckerberg writes:

If the industry can achieve a 10x improvement in each of these areas — delivering data and building more efficient apps — then it becomes economically reasonable to offer free basic services to those who cannot afford them, and to begin sustainably delivering on the promise of connectivity as a human right.

The paper looks at Facebook as a case study. It examines how the social network made its own infrastructure technologies more efficient, building mobile apps that use less data and power, to connect the billion-plus users it has today. When Zuckerberg kicked off the site at Harvard, he used a single $85-a-month server, he says:

With the limited financial resources available at the time, Facebook had to be capable of running with only a few people maintaining the service, even as more and more schools joined. Facebook.com was first coded in PHP, which was perfect for the quick iterations that have since defined our style of product rollouts and release engineering. PHP is a “dynamically-typed” programming language, allowing for greater speed than a “statically-typed” language like C++. As a programming language, PHP is simple to learn, write, read and debug. New engineers at Facebook can contribute a lot faster with PHP than with other languages, producing a faster pace of innovation. However, it soon became clear that if Facebook were to scale exponentially, PHP would be an obstacle to achieving this efficiently. Although PHP enabled speedy shipping of new products and changes to the service, its continued use would require exponentially more servers. A new approach was needed.

Instead of rewriting the whole site in new programming, Facebook’s infrastructure team figured out new ways to run PHP faster. A few years ago, the site launched a took called HipHop, which transformed PHP source code into highly optimized C++ before it reached the servers. That meant fewer machines were used – and, of course, less power, effectively doubling efficiency, the paper says:

These efficiencies and innovations are necessary at Facebook’s scale. Every day, there are more than 4.75 billion content items shared on Facebook (including status updates, wall posts, photos, videos and comments), more than 4.5 billion “Likes,” and more than 10 billion messages sent. More than 250 billion photos have been uploaded to Facebook, and more than 350 million photos are uploaded every day on average. The technical complexity of delivering a personalized Facebook experience — which generates a completely personalized view of the world for every one of our 1.15 billion users, every time they log in — requires that we process tens of thousands of pieces of data, spread across hundreds of different servers, in a few tens of microseconds. This complexity means we need to be able to process 1000x more traffic inside our data centers (between servers and clusters) than the traffic in and out of them. And that load is continuing to increase.

The company-wide challenges offer a glimpse of what it would be like to amplify access on a much broader scale.

Of course the challenges of global access are myriad. For one, the only online access in much of the developing world is mobile. Cisco’s yearly Internet services growth forecast predicts access to increase from 32 percent of the global population to nearly half by 2017, with most still concentrated in North America and Western Europe. Zuckerberg’s addressing the physical infrastructure lack already. His company spent more than a billion dollars building networks in poor countries. That’s still not enough to meet his own projections for 5 billion people. He’s counting on technology to advance enough to quicken the pace.

National Geographic published an article last month that questions the benefit of this ostensibly philanthropic plan for global connection. Timothy Carmody writes:

This entire enterprise could be criticized as either a publicity stunt long on PR-friendly promises and short on long-term commitments, or as a shameless land grab by Facebook and other powerful technology companies using a philanthropic veneer to gain a foothold in parts of the world they haven’t been able to penetrate. One could also say that it ignores much more serious global problems and has a too-rosy view of the Internet’s benefits.

Internet.org last month anticipated that kind of criticism, agreeing that no one should have to choose between food or medicine and the Internet. Zuckerberg says his motives are charitable, trying to raise the standard of living by providing access to the single largest knowledge database in existence. Zuckerberg wrote last month in a 10-page essay asking “Is Connectivity a Human Right?“:

The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be profitable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.

Image courtesy of Facebook/Instagram.

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