Zuckerberg's goal of connecting 5B people could take 20 years

Industry analysts say the plan can be done, but it won't be easy

Mark Zuckerberg may want to connect another five billion people to the Internet, but industry analysts say effort is fraught with technology problems, as well as political and cultural issues, and would take years to roll out.

Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, announced early Wednesday morning that he is working with a group of technology companies to try to speed the delivery of Internet access to the two-thirds of the world not yet connected.

The team, which includes Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, is launching a project called internet.org with the goal of making Internet access available to some five billion people around the world.

Facebook, however, has not said how long it would take to connect that many people. Nor has it laid out any specific projects that are underway.

Facebook, the largest social network in the world, did say that the initiative will focus on developing technologies like cheaper, higher-quality smartphones that will make mobile connectivity more affordable, while also investing in tools, such as enhanced network capabilities and data compression, that greatly reduce the amount of data required to use most apps and websites.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said the initiative will face significant challenges; he doesn't see it working for another 10 to 20 years.

"I think it can be done, but this is definitely a big goal," he added. "It will take quite a while and it will take a big investment. They'll have to deal with infrastructure issues, politics and cultural issues. There are a lot more issues than technical issues. It's these other issues that may be more daunting."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Resources, said he thinks it will take a solid 10 years to bring access to sometimes remote or impoverished areas that may be in the midst of political upheaval.

"Yes, it can be done, but not too quickly," said Gottheil. "The client hardware and software have to be built. The network stuff has to be built out. The subsidization business has to be negotiated and initiated. And they have to start signing up five billion people. That's a long line."

He added that the Internet's biggest profit makers, like Facebook, Google and Amazon.com, may need to pitch in to pay for widening global connectivity.

"The big barrier is that the next five billion can't afford higher communication costs," said Gottheil. "Businesses on the Web all benefit from this connectivity. They'll have to subsidize it to make this work."

He also noted that simpler smartphones may need apps and Internet content with far fewer frills. The key value to getting people online is to give them information or allow them to do a transaction. That may mean scaling back to text with graphics and sound and avoiding bandwidth hogs like streaming video.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, agreed with Olds and Gottheil that it could take 10 to 15 years to make the connectivity project work. "I'm skeptical because these kinds of initiatives never are achieved easily because they are just so difficult," he said. "Think of each country as a unique project. The scale is enormous."

However, the fact that so many large, wealthy companies are working on the problem gives him hope for eventual success.

If the project does work, the five billion people who come online will likely connect to the Internet through Facebook. That means they probably will use Facebook for a very long time and it means a lot more money in Facebook's pockets.

Olds noted that many residents in developing countries may not have much money to spend, but advertisers will still want to grab as much as they can.

"When you think about advertisers, they're not going to advertise the newest Lexus to these users, but they might advertise a bus service," said Olds. "They are burgeoning markets and there's very little competition. This could make money for everybody involved. This is one of the great untapped markets."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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