Inside Facebook’s Ambitious Plan to Connect the Whole World

Inside Facebook’s Ambitious Plan to Connect the Whole World

Mark Zuckerberg and his connectivity brain trust (from left): Hamid Hemmati, Andy Cox, and Yael Maguire.

Art Streiber

Hemmati, Cox, Zuckerberg, and MacGuire photographed in Menlo Park. Art Streiber
By Jessi Hempel 01.19.16

Inside Facebook’s Ambitious Plan to Connect the Whole World

The stern woman behind the press desk at the United Nations is certain I’ve made a mistake about the person I’m here to see. “Mr. Mark Zuckerberg?” she says. “Who’s he?” ¶ He’s an Internet executive, I tell her. He started Facebook. It’s the second week of the United Nations’ General Assembly. Several hundred reporters crowd into the press holding area. Nearby, on the main plaza, heads of state stroll by. In this place, it seems, Mark Zuckerberg might as well be Mark Smith.¶ She checks her dog-eared schedule, then makes a call, enunciating into the receiver: “ZOO-ker-burg. Mark ZOO-ker-burg.” Silence. “Yes, the Facebook guy.” More silence, during which it occurs to me the UN is like the opposite of Facebook. If it had motivational posters on the wall, they’d read: Move slow and break nothing. Finally, she hangs up and turns back to me. Zuckerberg is on the program after all, she concedes, speaking just before German chancellor Angela Merkel.

A short time later I slip into the back of a two-story amphitheater where Zuckerberg, dressed in a dark suit and a tie, has come to make the case that the Internet should be considered, like health care or clean water, a basic human right. He sees this as the most critical social endeavor of our time. Zuckerberg believes peer-to-peer communications will be responsible for redistributing global power, making it possible for any individual to access and share information. People could tap into government services, determine crop prices, get health care. A kid in India—Zuckerberg loves this hypothetical about a kid in India—could potentially go online and learn all of math. “It’s the underpinning for helping people get into the modern economy,” he says. “Ten years from now, we should not have to look back and accept there are people who don’t have access to that.”

Two and a half years ago, Zuckerberg launched Internet.org, a massive endeavor to connect everyone in the world to the web. By his calculations, nearly two-thirds of the global population—4.9 billion people—are not connected. Most people, it turns out, do have Internet access available to them, even if it’s crappy. But they can’t afford to pay for it or don’t know why they’d want to. (If you’re feeding a family on $1,570 a year, as average Indian earners do, the web might not seem like a priority.) Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the unconnected live in hard-to-reach places and don’t have access at all.

Aquila, Facebook’s Internet-delivery drone, has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 passenger jet, weighs less than 1,000 pounds, and can stay aloft for several months at a time. Christoffer Rudquist
To reach everyone, Internet.org takes a multipronged approach. Facebook has hammered out business deals with phone carriers in various countries to make more than 300 stripped-down web services (including Facebook) available for free. Meanwhile, through a Google X–like R&D group called the Connectivity Lab, Facebook is developing new methods to deliver the net, including lasers, drones, and new artificial intelligence–enhanced software. Once the tech is built, a lot of it will be open-sourced so that others can commercialize it.

To sell everyone from global leaders to fellow entrepreneurs on Internet.org, Zuckerberg has become an aspiring statesman.

When you’re looking out at the world from the sunny opportunity factory that is Silicon Valley, this vision sounds wonderful. Zuckerberg didn’t anticipate the extent of the backlash his idealistic undertaking would inspire. Skeptics see his mission as a play to colonize the digital universe. They question the hubris of an American boy billionaire who believes the world needs his help and posit that existing businesses and governments are better positioned to spread connectivity.

To address the criticism and sell everyone from global leaders to fellow entrepreneurs on Internet.org, Zuckerberg has transformed himself into an aspiring statesman. In the past year alone, he has “checked in” on his Facebook profile from Panama, India (twice), and Barcelona, and he has also made it to Indonesia and China. He delivered a speech in Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing and hosted Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at Facebook headquarters. He is working his way through a reading list heavy on political and international-development titles, like Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Art Streiber

For Zuckerberg, Internet.org is more than just a business initiative or a philanthropic endeavor: He considers connecting people to be his life’s work, the legacy for which he hopes to one day be remembered, and this effort is at its core. Zuckerberg is convinced the world needs Internet.org. The Internet won’t expand on its own, he says; in fact, the rate of growth is slowing. Most companies prioritize connecting the people who have a shot at joining the emerging middle class or who at least have the cash to foot a tiny data plan. Those businesses can’t afford to take a flier on the hardest people to reach—the very poor—in the hope that decades into the future they will transform into a viable market. Zuckerberg can. And as board chair, chief executive, and the majority vote on Facebook’s board, he can compel his board to support him. “There’s no way we can draw a plan about why we’re going to invest billions of dollars in getting mostly poor people online,” he tells me. “But at some level, we believe this is what we’re here to do, and we think it’s going to be good, and if we do it, some of that value will come back to us.”

As 2016 gets under way, Zuckerberg has named the Connectivity Lab’s work one of his three top priorities for the year. He plans to launch a satellite above sub-Saharan Africa by year’s end. The first drone test flights will happen shortly. And Facebook has developed new mapping software that takes advantage of AI-enhanced maps to better determine where people need their phones to work. An on-the-ground deployment team is making its way from Kenyan refugee camps to inland villages to hack together new methods for getting people online.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg continues to travel to unfamiliar venues—like the United Nations—to promote the work. He finishes his speech, slips out of the amphitheater, and strides to a luncheon, where he joins Merkel and U2’s Bono. At 31, he is a full two decades younger than most of the delegates, business leaders, and dignitaries who dig in to their green beans as he once again steps up to a podium. He speaks: “Access to the Internet is a fundamental challenge of our time.”

Yael Maguire, director of engineering at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.Art Streiber
Director of engineering Hamid Hemmati came over from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.Art Streiber
The first time Hamid Hemmati got an email from Mark Zuckerberg, he thought it was spam. A researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the soft-spoken Iranian immigrant had spent several decades figuring out how to help communications travel on lasers. By contrast, Facebook made computer applications; it employed young coders. “I thought, ‘Just in case this is genuine, I’ll respond,’” he says.

As it turned out, Zuckerberg’s interest in lasers was genuine. In the fall of 2013, he’d gathered the Internet.org team together for several meetings. He was joined by Yael Maguire, 40, an MIT Media Lab PhD and engineering director for the Connectivity Lab. Zuckerberg calls Maguire the “internal and external spiritual leader” for the Connectivity Lab—he’s on top of the science, but he never loses sight of Internet.org’s mission.

Zuckerberg asked Maguire and the rest of the team for new approaches. In the months since Internet.org’s launch, Facebook had trained most of its resources on the things it could achieve right away—making software fixes to improve existing connections, for example, and developing new apps that didn’t use much data. Zuckerberg wanted the lab to make bigger bets, to think about projects that might take a decade to mature but that could reshape what we know about how the Internet is powered. His rule is that Facebook should work on any project that has the potential to increase connectivity by a factor of 10 or to bring down the price of that connectivity by a similar factor.

Among the ideas that caught his imagination: data that travels by lasers, sent to Earth from drones. These invisible beams of light provide extremely high bandwidth capacity and are not regulated. Facebook’s laser communications team is working to engineer lasers that transmit data 10 times faster than current versions. The only problem was that the technology to make lasers work on a large scale didn’t exist. “People were like, ‘Oh, well, there’s this optical stuff that in theory could work in the future,’” Zuckerberg remembers. But they said it was a decade away from being commercially viable.

Zuckerberg asked the team for a list of experts. He started emailing them cold, including Hemmati, who then visited Zuckerberg in Menlo Park, California, and eventually signed on. “How often does one get the chance to be a part of a project that could make the world better for billions of people?” Hemmati says.

A sign in Facebook’s laser lab reads “WARNING: SHARKS WITH FRICKIN’ LASER BEAMS ATTACHED TO THEIR HEADS.”

Spencer Lowell

Hemmati’s new lab is in a nondescript office park in northern Los Angeles, just beneath the western regional headquarters of the Subway sandwich chain. Bolts and lenses litter the optical tables. A poster reads: “WARNING: SHARKS WITH FRICKIN’ LASER BEAMS ATTACHED TO THEIR HEADS.”

He and his team are working on an opportunity that is huge but tricky to realize, as many researchers before Facebook have found. They must fine-tune their ability to aim the lasers. And they must work with the Connectivity Lab to formulate a rainy-day plan—literally. Lasers can’t pass through clouds. As a backup, Facebook is developing software to extend existing mobile phone systems. Satellites could also do the job, though they are very expensive. (Facebook recently partnered with a French company to launch a satellite above sub-Saharan Africa.)

Hemmati is in touch with Maguire almost daily, and Maguire keeps the boss filled in on their progress. Zuckerberg meets regularly with the team for product reviews. It can lead to a productive tension. Zuckerberg, influenced by the quick nature of writing code, always wants to move faster, to release beta versions of various projects, and to talk about them publicly. But Maguire is in charge of, among other things, making large planes. As another colleague, who runs infrastructure for Facebook, explains, “We’re trying to get Mark to understand: This isn’t writing code on a laptop and copying it over to a server. There’s, like, physical stuff. There’s chips and radios and high-powered lasers and planes that could fall out of the sky.”

Facebook will begin testing its lasers in the field later this year. It will be the first trial of the full delivery system, but to work, that system will need a key component: drones.

Facebook ultimately wants to launch 10,000 drones like Aquila, moving them around the globe to create hot spots wherever they’re needed.

Christoffer Rudquist

Half the world away, Facebook’s most ambitious connectivity project is being developed in the small industrial town of Bridgwater, three hours west of London. A sign in front of the local pub reads: “HUSBAND BABYSITTING SERVICE.” Drive 10 minutes out and you’ll reach a low brick building marked only “#11,” though everyone knows it’s Facebook. “We tried to tell people it’s a warehouse,” engineering director Andy Cox says, “but we’ve had some 10,000 parcels delivered. Everything comes in, but nothing goes out.”

Cox, 53, is in charge of Aquila, Facebook’s passenger jet–sized unmanned aerial vehicle (aka drone). He’s a professorial mechanical engineer who, earlier in his career, built Disney’s Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster. More recently, he was part of the team that set the record for keeping a solar-powered UAV aloft for two weeks. He left that project and in 2010 formed an aviation consultancy, Ascenta. In the spring of 2014, a business development guy from Facebook phoned up and offered close to $20 million to buy his group. Nine days later, Cox started working for Zuckerberg. “I brought the oldest team yet to Facebook,” he tells me, describing the aerodynamicist, the structural specialist, and others he brought along. “There were two at 74, then 65, 57, and then there was me at 51!”

I visit Cox on the day after he completed the first prototype of Aquila last July. Inside the warehouse, we climb a ladder to get a better look. We are soon nose-to-nose with Aquila, a sleek gray boomerang-shaped drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737; it’s intended to glide slowly while staying aloft for several months at a time. The entire thing weighs less than 1,000 pounds—about one-hundredth the weight of a passenger plane.

Cox invites me to move in closer, once I remove my watch so I don’t accidentally nick the craft. I see dozens of white chalky circles drawn around areas where someone else wasn’t so careful. Later, Cox will review each with an ultrasound machine to ensure the integrity of the structure. He can’t afford to have a tiny human error derail the progress, particularly when Cox and his team are working on Zuckerberg’s clock. Normally, he says, the development process from concept to flight takes seven years. By outsourcing some of their research to universities, Cox and his team hope to be able to get that down to a little more than a year. By the end of 2016, they aim to test a system that will work like this: A ground station will transmit a radio signal to a drone, which will send that signal to other drones via lasers. The fleet will beam those lasers down to transponders within about 30 miles of each craft. These will convert the signal into Wi-Fi or 4G networks. Facebook has not yet determined the data plan or pricing for this offering.

Andy Cox, engineering lead for Facebook’s aviation team.

Art Streiber

There are many challenges to designing a plane to fly at 65,000 feet—higher than commercial planes and all but a few military aircraft. For one, the air has just 9 percent of the density it has at sea level, so a craft designed for lower altitudes won’t stay aloft. Cox devised a hot-air balloon to lift it up into the sky. The balloon will then deflate, fall to the ground with a tracking device, and be collected and recycled. The team also worked to prevent flutter—a condition that makes the drone vibrate uncontrollably.

Right now the biggest challenge Aquila faces is regulatory. Facebook has joined with Alphabet (formerly Google) to address bureaucratic obstacles. Its competitor has its own drone effort, Project Titan, incubating under its Access and Energy division. (Project Loon, which aspires to beam the Internet from high-altitude balloons and is part of the Google X lab, is further along than either UAV endeavor and will test a partnership with several carriers in Indonesia this year.) Both companies must cooperate with the Federal Aviation Administration to get permission for test flights—Facebook would prefer to conduct these closer to its headquarters. It intends to fly within an area that Maguire refers to as the “Wild West” of airspace, managed in the US by the Department of Defense in collaboration with the FAA. Google and Facebook will also need more spectrum for their projects to work. They have been lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to support an effort by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union to make specific radio spectrum available for drones.

Ultimately, Facebook wants to launch 10,000 Aquilas and move them around the globe to create hot spots wherever they’re needed. As with most Connectivity Lab projects, the company aims to develop the technology and then release it to outsiders to commercialize it. Facebook has a model for this in its Open Compute Project, which launched over two years ago to build more efficient, economical data centers. Once Facebook made significant progress, it open-sourced its designs.

The day after my visit, Cox and his team began to disassemble Aquila, weighing each component and testing the structure and all the motors, transistors, and propellers. Cox expected to fly Aquila last October. The date has since been pushed back several times. This month they’ve been flying a 27-foot scale model, but the stormy El Niño–influenced weather has made even these attempts slowgoing.

An optical table in the laser lab. Spencer Lowell
An engineering model of a part to be mounted on the drone.Spencer Lowell
While Facebook aims for the sky with its lasers and drones, a growing number of skeptics doubt Zuckerberg’s true intentions. The trouble, which caught Zuckerberg by surprise, centers on Facebook’s attempts to partner with mobile carriers in different parts of the world to launch an app that makes a small group of websites, including Facebook, available to smartphone owners without incurring charges for data. Through the program, called Free Basics, developers can offer lighter versions of their apps that take less time to load, that can work adequately on less robust 2G and 3G networks, and that lure users to want to use more data and become paying customers.

But the rollout, which began in 2014, has not gone smoothly. Last April several Indian publishers withdrew their services from the app, claiming Facebook violated net neutrality by colluding with local carriers to offer free access to only a select group of services, putting others at a disadvantage. Zuckerberg responded with a Facebook post stating that Facebook has no intention of blocking or throttling the Internet but is simply giving access to people who otherwise couldn’t get it. “These two principles—universal connectivity and net neutrality—can and must coexist,” he wrote.

Zuckerberg argues for a “reasonable” definition of net neutrality, saying, “It’s not an equal Internet if the majority of people can’t participate.”

Then, in early May, Facebook opened its developer platform so anyone could launch a free app. Because of the time difference between Menlo Park and Delhi, it was late in the evening at headquarters when Zuckerberg watched critics begin to pick up steam after the announcement. Incensed, he decided he wanted to address his critics directly. He recorded a video. In it, the lights are off, the desks void of people, as Zuckerberg defends his initiative. He argues for a “reasonable” definition of net neutrality, saying, “It’s not an equal Internet if the majority of people can’t participate.” He lists the non-Facebook services that people can use, including Wikipedia, job listings, and HIV education. He concludes with a call to action, saying, “We have to ask ourselves, what kind of community do we want to be? Are we a community that values people and improving people’s lives above all else? Or are we a community that puts the intellectual purity of technology above people’s needs?”

His speech did not appease the naysayers. In mid-May, digital rights groups from 31 countries signed an open letter to Zuckerberg, saying Internet.org “violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy, and innovation.”

Facebook responded by changing the name of its app from Internet.org to Free Basics. (The old name sounded too much like the app was the entire Internet.) It also improved app security. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has stepped up his efforts, particularly in India. He hosted prime minister Narendra Modi in Menlo Park in September. In October he returned to India, where he held a town hall meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. There, he said a million people were using the app in India and that it had so far brought 15 million people online. The skepticism, however, amplified. In December, Indian regulators issued a temporary ban on the service.

Soon after, Facebook suspended its Free Basics service in Egypt, one of its earliest and most successful markets. Egyptian regulators chose not to renew a two-month permit that had expired. While it would be easy to conclude that the countries had similar concerns, in reality the situation is more ambiguous. Neither Egyptian regulators nor Facebook would give an official reason for the service’s shutdown there, but January 25 will mark the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak. Facebook played a crucial role in organizing demonstrations in 2011. In early January, in a crackdown on activists, security forces arrested three people who administered 23 Facebook pages. While an Egyptian regulator told Reuters the suspension of Free Basics was not related to security concerns, 3 million people had access to the service, according to Facebook, including 1 million who had never before accessed the Internet.

Zuckerberg, who is on paternity leave, continues to engage his critics directly, defending Internet.org’s intentions. In late December, he penned an op-ed for an Indian newspaper: “This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests—there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics,” he wrote. “If people lose access to free basic services, they will simply lose access to the opportunities offered by the Internet today.”

The rooftop of the headquarters of Project Isizwe, a South African nonprofit that makes free Wi-Fi available.

Alexia Webster

As daunting as the skeptics are, they aren’t Zuckerberg’s biggest challenge. It’s people who need to be convinced they need the Internet. In September, I travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet Ryan Wallace, a lanky 38-year-old who used to set up the Internet for the British Royal Navy in far-flung places. He’s drawing on that know-how as part of an Internet.org deployment team. We fly to Polokwane, a city in the impoverished northeast. There we meet James Devine, who works for Project Isizwe, a local nonprofit that makes free Wi-Fi available. Devine and Wallace have forged a partnership in which Facebook finances hot spots in several villages and Isizwe monitors their upkeep. We drive north to check them out. Wallace and Devine are both very excited for me to meet someone they refer to only as the lady with the chicken shack.

For the Internet to make a difference, people need to want to connect to it in the first place.

When we arrive in her village, she isn’t there. Instead, a man lounges on a bench beneath a hot spot. He has a Samsung phone—on which he is not surfing the web. “Do you know you can get on the Internet here?” Wallace asks him. The hot spot had been up for a year, and according to the deal he and Devine have struck, users in this area can get a small amount of data for free. And they can check out the services on the Free Basics app—educational scholarships or maternal health information—as much as they want. The guy shrugs. Wallace takes the man’s phone, scrolls to the settings, and ticks the Wi-Fi box, connecting him. “It’s free,” Wallace says. The man takes his phone back. He isn’t visibly excited.

For Zuckerberg, this is the biggest trial of all. Forget the political barriers, the lack of a profitable business model, and the technological hurdles. Forget the drones and lasers. For the Internet to make a difference, people need to want to connect to it in the first place. And figuring out what people want from the web is as varied as the web itself.
Just then, the lady with the chicken shack drives up in her white pickup truck and pops out to greet us. Her name is Norah Mphedziseni Namalale, but she says her friends call her Pedzi; she is 35. She runs a business selling chicken skewers from a grill beneath the hot spot. She knows everything about it—when it goes down, who uses it, and why. “But most people aren’t even aware that we have this,” she tells me. “We haven’t done anything to let them know. There’s nowhere for them to sit comfortably. They’re afraid that if they come over, I’ll chase them away.”

In Thohoyandou, South Africa, friends meet up after work to socialize and use free Wi-Fi to check the Internet.Alexia Webster
Facebook and Project Isizwe have installed free Wi-Fi outside a school in Tshedza so that teachers and locals can access the Internet. Alexia Webster
Wallace thinks local entrepreneurs like Namalale may be the key to making the Internet take off here. He imagines ways he could enlist her to sell small data packages for local carriers, and, in return, Facebook and Isizwe could build more comfortable seating around her chicken stand. He tells me this model has already worked in Rishikesh, a small town at the mouth of the Ganges in northern India. Perhaps Namalale could be the person to convince the guy with the Samsung phone that he needs the Internet. But that would require many more conversations—and Wallace is part of a very small team of people doing this work in many villages and cities in a dozen countries.

Such challenges could demoralize anyone. But Zuckerberg is taking a very long view. This past fall, as we discuss the backlash, the drawn-out process of testing the drones, and the challenge of persuading people to get on the Internet, Zuckerberg reflects back to one of his favorite stories from when he first started Facebook. It’s one he’s told me before. It was a few nights after he launched the website. He and his computer science buddy were getting pizza and talking. Zuckerberg told his friend that someone was going to build a social network, because it was too important not to exist. But he didn’t guess, back then, that he’d be the guy to do it. There were older people and bigger companies. So why, then, was Zuckerberg the one to build Facebook? “I think it’s because we cared. A lot of times, caring about something and believing in it trumps,” he says. “I couldn’t connect the dots going forward on Facebook from the beginning. To me, that’s a lot of the story of Internet.org too.” History suggests it’s not a good idea to bet against Mark Zuckerberg.

Senior staff writer Jessi Hempel (@jessiwrites) wrote about US secretary of defense Ashton Carter in the December 2015 issue of WIRED.

Portrait grooming by Tamara Brown/Artist Untied