Facebook’s internet.org initiative launched last year with the intention of working with industry companies to reduce the cost and hassle associated with getting online developing countries.
Now the project is releasing its first app for Android phones, providing free access to core services including Google search, government info, weather, job listings, Wikipedia, and – of course – Facebook.
The app is trialling in Zambia first, with plans to extend its coverage to other countries over time. It’s available for both smartphones and feature phones and can also be accessed through Facebook’s own main app.
Access will be free to any customers on Airtel Africa – a subsidiary of Indian telecommunications giant Airtel, and the market leader in numerous African countries including Chad, Gabon, Malawi, Niger and the Republic of the Congo.
Although Facebook was one of the first players to get involved with signing up ‘the next billion’ global internet users, it’s now part of a wider effort that includes the likes of Google’s Project Loon and the Alliance for Affordable Internet, backed by Tim Berners-Lee.
Although the social network has been accused of hiding commercial interest under the guise of philanthropy (after all, more internet users mean more customers) there’s no doubt that offering free access to information about women’s rights and maternity care in developing countries can only be a good thing.
However, that doesn't mean it's not slightly worrying that Facebook might decide what counts as a 'basic' internet service in the future (no one is surprised that Twitter doesn't make their list) and the scheme is still designed to make money for Airtel - one click outside the app and users are warned they're going to need to buy some data to carry on browsing. There's no such thing as a free lunch.