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Rocket Explosion Hurts Facebook’s Internet Plans for Africa

Facebook's efforts to increase access to the Internet suffered a setback at the beginning of September. The social network lost a satellite meant to provide low cost service to the continent.
Satellite Explosion Hurts Facebook’s Internet Plans for Africa
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Plans to make Internet connections easier to get in Africa were hurt this month when a rocket exploded in the U.S. state of Florida. The rocket belonging to the company SpaceX was carrying a communications satellite for the social media network Facebook.

Facebook had planned to use some of the satellite’s coverage to bring Internet service to people in countries south of the Saharan desert. Facebook and Google are working on other ways to bring Internet access to Africa, but it will be some time before they are ready.

Faiz Bashir heads FlexiSAF, an education technology company in Abuja, Nigeria. He says Internet access is too costly for most Nigerians.

“If you want very good Internet, it’s very expensive. Usually only big companies and rich people can afford that,” he said

The International Telecommunication Union says about 25 percent of people in Africa will use the Internet this year. That is more than last year’s rate of 20 percent. But it is still the lowest rate in the world.

Facebook provides Internet service in Africa

Three years ago, Facebook said it would try to bring Internet access to more people in Africa and other areas of the world. Mark Zuckerberg, who leads Facebook, talked about the plan in a Facebook video.

“Our plan is to make basic Internet services affordable, so that everyone with a phone can join the knowledge economy.”

One part of that plan began in Nigeria in May. It is called Free Basics. Anyone with a smartphone can see some health, education, weather, job search and other sites -- including Facebook – at no cost.

Bashir says it is easier now for him to communicate with family members in isolated areas of the country.

Free Basics is now available in 48 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Latin America.

Facebook also offers a service called Express Wi-Fi. People can pay to use the Wi-Fi.

Facebook planned to expand its services, but then came the setback of September 1st.

The social media network has faced several setbacks

Screen grab of the SpaceX rocket explosion on September 1, 2016.
Screen grab of the SpaceX rocket explosion on September 1, 2016. released a video showing the explosion of the SpaceX rocket.

It was not the only problem Facebook has had this year as it tries to give more people access to the Internet. In February, R.S. Sharma, the head of India’s telecommunications agency, announced new rules that make it harder for Facebook to offer its Free Basics service in the country.

“No service provider shall charge differential pricing on the basis of application, platforms or websites or source,” he said.

Differential pricing means charging two prices to different groups for the same service.

The rules pleased some Internet activists who believe companies should not be able to decide what websites a person can see.

It is not known how many new Internet users the Free Basics plan has created. A group called The Alliance for an Affordable Internet looked at who was using the plan -- and of others that offer free Internet access -- in eight countries. Research manager Dhanaraj Thakur says the group found that 88 percent of the users were not new to the Internet.

Thakur says people were using Free Basics to visit Facebook and other websites but were using their data plans to watch videos.

Facebook says it wants to help everyone in the world go online. Last month, it announced a successful test of a solar-powered drone, or unmanned aircraft. It is designed to stay in the air for weeks, providing Internet service to rural areas.

Google is also helping rural people get access to the Internet by using large balloons floating high above the earth.

It is not known if Facebook plans to launch another satellite.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

VOA Correspondent Steve Baragona reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Pete Heinlein was the editor.

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Words in This Story

expensive –adj. costly

basic –adj. not including anything extra

affordable –adj. able to be bought without too much money

isolated –adj. far away from other things, separated from others

Wi-Fi –n. a wireless connection available over short distances

differential pricing –n. giving a different price to two or more groups for the same service

data plans –n. a plan in which a person pays an amount of money to receive a set amount of data over the Internet

solar –adj. have to do with, or provided by the sun