Home > industry > media > Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would like more Indian users on the Internet

New Delhi: With riffs on the Mars mission and the famed Indian IT outsourcing story, and marrying the objectives of Internet.org, the project his company and a clutch of others launched in August last year, with India’s ambitious Digital India mission, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg hinted at ways his company could take the Internet to the “more than billion people who are still not connected".

Part of that plan may involve telcos.

On 31 July, for instance, Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s largest telco, and Facebook jointly launched an Internet.org app in Zambia to provide free access to Facebook and other online services to people who might otherwise have no access to the world wide web. The app is available only to Bharti Airtel subscribers in Zambia.

Zuckerberg hinted at a similar type of service for India with local telecom operators. “You need a 911 type of service for the Internet, (which can provide) some free access for basic services like health and education," Zuckerberg said, but added that “one will need a model where the operators too make money".

Internet.org, founded by Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, hopes to take the Internet to the 66% of the world’s population that is still off the grid.

Digital India is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious programme that clubs e-governance, Internet access for all and electronics manufacturing.

“I do not believe that the Internet is more important than food, toilets or clean water (in a country like India). People need (all) these things in a modern society. But I really think we’re (Facebook) much better suited to help out in providing Internet-based services rather than providing clean water," said Zuckerberg during the launch of Internet.org on Thursday in India.

On Friday, Zuckerberg will meet Modi “to explore ways in which his company can participate" in the Digital India mission.

With close to 110 million of its 1.32 billion users in India, Zuckerberg has more than one reason to be in the country. Fifty million Indian users are on messaging service WhatsApp, a user base Zuckerberg has no intention of monetizing “in the near-term", except for the 99 cents that is charged from each user after one year of service.

India, he pointed out, has 243 million Internet users—just a fifth of its population.

The barriers to Internet adoption in the country include cultural barriers, low quality of coverage, uneven distribution of wealth and “many who still don’t see any good reason to access the Internet", Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg, who is also meeting up with Facebook’s partners in India to discuss some of these issues, has some experience in widening Internet access in developing countries.

Last, but not the least, he is here to figure out how Facebook can spur developers to provide more local language content apps, since “almost 80% of the world’s Internet content is in just about 10 major languages".

“More than 65% of Facebook users access the Internet in a language other than English," Zuckerberg said.

Delivering the keynote address at the Internet.org summit earlier in the day, Zuckerberg announced a $1 million fund to incentivize developers in India.

Among other prizes, an amount of $250,000 will be presented to the app, website or service that judges determine best meets the needs of one of the four designated population categories: women, students, farmers and migrant workers—four awards in total. Each of the award winners will also be eligible to receive a package of tools and services worth up to $60,000 from Facebook’s FbStart programme.

“India is where all the growth is taking place," said Jonathan Sreekumaran, business director, north, of Webchutney Studio Pvt. Ltd, a media and marketing firm which is part of Dentsu Network.

“Silicon Valley is showing lots of interest in India, especially with a change in the government. Also, India, unlike the developed markets such as the States (the US) or Canada, is not at a saturation point," he said.

Digital India is proving to be a magnet for global technology companies, a point driven home by the visits of three global executives to the country in September alone.

On 15 September, Sundar Pichai, senior vice-president at Google Inc. who handles the company’s Chrome, apps and Android business, was in India to promote the company’s low-cost Android One smartphones. Jeff Bezos, president, chief executive and chairman of the board of the world’s largest online retailer Amazon.com Inc., came visiting on 28 September. This was followed by a visit by Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft Corp., on 30 September.

Mahesh Murthy, co-founder, Seedfund, and founder of Pinstorm, a marketing and advertising firm, pointed out that there are only around 300 million people in India who can speak or understand English.

“Facebook is already at 110 million users in India, so it is coming close to the ceiling. Growth will slow down. The only way numbers can grow again is if Facebook opens up to people who are not English-savvy in India, not just with language versions of Facebook," said Murthy. “The problem is that due to our government’s short-sightedness, nobody knows how to use any Indian language keyboard. So even if you have a Facebook in Hindi, no one will know how to type on it."

According to Vishal Tripathi, principal research analyst at Gartner Inc., “In terms of increasing numbers in India, it is fine, but the bigger question is how to make money out of this growing market."

Tripathi noted that Facebook has advertisements and missed-call options (where the company calls back users who give it a missed call). “Now they also have a smart plugin." he added.

Facebook has also received flak on a range of issues including misuse of online privacy.

According to Murthy, “As long as people want to connect on Facebook for free, they have to contend with the fact that data about them is being packaged and sold to advertisers".

Sreekumaran said Facebook is reportedly trying to win over those who are concerned about privacy. “As far as rights are concerned, at the end of the day, you’re still using someone’s platform to do your own thing. There are rules of engagement using the platform. Period."

When asked why there was no uniform privacy policy across countries, the stringent EU laws that rein in Facebook being a case in point, Zuckerberg said, “We are certainly open to feedback about the products we roll out...we take into account cultural and local needs and we certainly empathize (with) and understand nuances (in different countries)."

Moulishree Srivastava contributed to the story.

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