If Facebook’s founding mission was to make the world “more open and connected,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed hell-bent on doing it in more ways than one.
“Connected” not only meant letting people post photos or articles, but getting them online — and on Facebook — to see all that stuff in the first place. “I’m focused on this because I believe it is one of the greatest challenges of our generation,” Zuckerberg wrote in a 10-page manifesto in August 2013, almost exactly five years ago. “We believe everyone deserves to be connected.”
Now, a half decade after launching Internet.org, seen by many as the coming-out party for Facebook’s connectivity programs, the company said it’s shaking up its efforts to bring internet access to the 4 billion people who still don’t have it. On Friday, Facebook rounded up all its disparate broadband and infrastructure projects and housed them under a new umbrella organization called Facebook Connectivity.
“There’s no silver bullet for connecting the world,” Yael Maguire, vice president of engineering for Facebook Connectivity, said in an interview Thursday. “There isn’t going to be a magic technology or business plan or single regulatory policy change that’s going to change this. We really believe that it is a wide and diverse set of efforts that’s required to do this.”
Facebook also said it’s hired Dan Rabinovitsj, former president of wireless networking company Ruckus Networks, as a vice president to lead Connectivity after he gets acclimated with the company. He reports to Facebook engineering and infrastructure chief Jay Parikh. (Currently, Maguire leads connectivity projects, which Facebook says has already brought the internet to 100 million people.)
The company declined to make Rabinovitsj, Parikh and Zuckerberg available for interviews.
The Connectivity group houses projects including Terragraph, which aims to connect high-density urban areas; OpenCellular, an open-source platform working on rural connectivity; and the Telecom Infra Project, a joint initiative with the wireless industry for creating faster networks.
Facebook said the umbrella will also include Internet.org, which drew controversy with its Free Basics product that offered a pared-down version of the internet in emerging markets. While Internet.org has been synonymous with Facebook’s connectivity efforts for the past five years, the new Connectivity brand may signal the company trying to distance itself from the backlashes surrounding Internet.org. Facebook’s new Connectivity website contains only one mention of Internet.org.
The umbrella group is also the home of Facebook’s “high-altitude platform” projects for beaming down Wi-Fi lasers to unconnected populations. Facebook said in June it will, a giant drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737, but that it will continue to work with partner companies like the aerospace manufacturer Airbus to invest in that kind of technology.
The company on Friday also announced new analytics tools that tap into even more user data to aid wireless operators and mobile device makers. One of them is Advanced Network Planning, which aims to help mobile operators plan how they’ll build out future networks. For example, using Facebook’s population density and network performance maps, which gather by data by tracking users on Facebook’s mobile app, companies might have better insight about where to lay down fiber-optic cables.
Another tool is called Actionable Insights. It collects information about network coverage and download speeds from Facebook users. With that info, wireless companies might be better able to understand where a spotty network might need improvement, or if a cell tower with a poor connection needs attention, said Jon Paris, Facebook’s director of Connectivity products. Another tool for device makers tracks how Facebook users do things like switch out the SIM cards on their phones to give manufacturers more insight into how people use their devices.
All of that is another reminder that Facebook, which is already under scrutiny for the amount of data it collects, gathers details on its 2 billion monthly users even beyond its platform. It’s collecting that information from people who’ve turned the Location Services setting on for the Facebook app. The company said the data is aggregated and de-identified, and no individual’s personal information is shared with its partners. But there’s no way to keep Location Services on — say, if you want to keep geotagging enabled — and opt out of that kind of data collection.
Maguire minimized the privacy concerns, likening the data collection to that of mapping tools for tracking traffic congestion, which is also aggregated.
Twists and turns
The change in Facebook’s playbook comes after twists and turns with some of its connectivity initiatives. In March, the headline for a 4,400-word Wired feature asked, “What Happened to Facebook’s Grand Plan to Wire the World?” When the company said in June it would stop making drones like Aquila, critics took it as a sign Zuckerberg was backing away from the connectivity challenge.
“I don’t think of it as a retreat,” Maguire said when asked about the decision. “If I wear the ‘I’m an engineer’ hat and I love to focus on the things that I build, yeah, maybe it’s a little disappointing what’s happening in the market. But if I take a step back as the person who’s focused on these efforts … it’s fantastic what’s happening globally with companies like Airbus and others who are focused on this as a potential market.”
Facebook’s connectivity ambitions hit another setback in 2016 when a SpaceX rocket, carrying an Internet.org satellite, exploded on the launchpad. But Facebook said last month it’s already working on another satellite, called Athena, to beam down Wi-Fi. It’s scheduled to launch next year.
Meanwhile, the world’s biggest social network continues to face scrutiny for some of its negative impact on the world, including allowing its platform to be used to spread fake news and for failing to stop election interference by the Russians. In March, Zuckerberg was slammed by lawmakers for not preventing the, in which the data of 87 million Facebook users was co-opted after a failure in the company’s oversight of data collection and sharing practices by third parties.
Facebook’s effects can get even uglier when you look at some of the impact of misinformation in emerging markets, where it’s been accused of spurring violence in Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka.
When it comes to Internet.org, the biggest black eye was the rejection of Free Basics in India. The social network began offering the service, which includes limited internet access to a suite of websites and services including Facebook, in 2016. Locals protested. They saw it as an affront to net neutrality, the principle that all web traffic should be treated equally. Regulators eventually banned Free Basics.
“The veneer of altruism is pretty thin there,” said Nani Jansen Reventlow, director of the Digital Freedom Fund, and former fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “You can’t just barge in with a US-created product and expect the rest of the world to be really happy to get access to that.”
On Thursday, Maguire said Free Basics was meant to be an “on-ramp to the broader internet, not a substitute.” Facebook said it has nothing new to announce regarding Free Basics in India.
Internet.org seemed to have personal meaning for Zuckerberg. He poured a lot of time into the initiative, delivering multiple keynotes at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress trade show to talk about connectivity efforts, giving a speech at the United Nations, and taking a trip to India for a Time magazine cover story in December 2014 under the banner “Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to get every human online.”
But then Facebook seemed to distance itself from the Internet.org brand. As Wired noted in March, there wasn’t any mention of it in Parikh’s Mobile World Congress blog post this year.
The Internet.org website has also been dormant. In the weeks before today’s news — and possibly longer — the press section of the website was empty. The careers section redirects to the front door of Facebook’s career site. And on Internet.org’s Facebook page, the last post was in March 2017.
And in the years since Internet.org’s launch, Zuckerberg’s personal brand of humanitarianism has become less linked to beaming the internet across the globe and more tied to projects around education, medicine and disease eradication. Those efforts are being overseen by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced in 2015 after the birth of their first daughter, Max.
As for connecting the world, Zuckerberg knew from the jump it wouldn’t be easy. When he put together his manifesto five years ago, under the headline “Is Connectivity a Human Right?,” he set expectations.
“We’ve put together a rough vision for what we believe is possible and a rough plan to work together as an industry to get there,” he wrote. “It may be possible to achieve more than we lay out here, but it may also be more challenging than we predict.”
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