We tend to think that everybody's online these days. In fact, only one-third of the world's population has access to the Internet. The other two-thirds are simply beyond reach.
Google and Facebook are hatching schemes (that some people call crazy) to bring to the majority of people what we in the privileged minority enjoy every day — the ability to get online.
It's really an extension of actions Google and Facebook already take to get people connected.
Paying the bills
Most people in the industrialized world are aware that Google and Facebook pay millions of people in the developing world to use their services. That payment comes in the form of picking up the tab for mobile broadband data when people are using either Google or Facebook services.
In many parts of the world, people pay for data as they use it — more usage, more cost. So a huge number of people who have data plans don't use them because they can't afford to.
So Facebook came up with an idea: Why not pick up the check?
Facebook Zero was announced in 2010 to bring people free data connectivity, at least while they're visiting Facebook. The initiative involves making partnerships with carriers that then implement the subsidy for Facebook.
Facebook Zero's Web address is 0.facebook.com or zero.facebook.com. Those URLs work only in the countries participating in the program, and only on the networks of the 50 or so participating carriers; users in other countries or on other networks are redirected to the standard mobile version of Facebook.
Wikipedia has a similar program called Wikipedia Zero, which operates in 34 countries.
Google's offering is called Google Free Zone. Through this two-year-old initiative, the company makes deals with mobile carriers in specific countries and agrees to pay the data charges of people who use Google search, Gmail or Google+.
Google Free Zone, as announced by Google on Nov. 8, 2012, operates in South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Nigeria and Kenya.
Facebook Zero, Wikipedia Zero and Google Free Zone are great for the relatively small number of people who live in the right countries and use participating carriers.
Subsidized data plans are possible only for people who live in areas where mobile connectivity exists. But billions of people live beyond the reach of any kind of Internet connection.
Here's the problem: Wireless Internet access is not possible without a cell tower. A tower requires a cable-based connection and electrical power. If a company wants to put up a cell tower, it first needs to buy, or otherwise secure, rights to the land it wants to build on.
Because of those obstacles, billions of people have no chance of living within range of a cell tower in the foreseeable future. But Google and Facebook think they can make a difference by providing Internet connectivity via other means.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.