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Facebook-led Internet.org teams up with Unilever to improve rural India internet access in latest project

Internet.org – an initiative led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – has teamed up with Unilever to nail down ways to improve internet access for millions of people across rural India.

The pairing – announced ahead of Zuckerberg’s keynote speech at Mobile World Congress 2014 - will kick off with a study examining issues with cost and infrastructure, but also educational and cultural factors which could be impeding progress. The research will then be used to “inform the development of a series of on-the-ground projects” aiming to improve connectivity in rural India.

Internet.org – which launched in August last year with a group of partners including Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung aimed at improving global internet access – has also announced partnerships with Nokia in Rwanda to give students free access to an online education platform, and Ericsson to launch the Internet.org Innovation Lab.

Chris Weasler, director of global connectivity at Facebook, said: “The internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it’s also the foundation of the global knowledge economy and a way to deliver basic financial services, health and educational tools.

“In partnership with Unilever, we hope to break down the barriers to access and, in turn, provide millions of people with the information that can help them, and their communities, thrive.”

The announcement follows the launch of Unilever’s new marketing strategy in September last year, ‘Crafting Brands for Life’, which aims to build direction around the idea of connectivity on a global scale and has focused attention on developing markets and meeting their current capabilities.

For Indian detergent brand Active Wheel, the One Missed Call campaign delivered content to potential customers by calling their mobile phone to provide entertainment, jokes and music. Research has shown that mobile access is more prevalent in developing markets – including Africa and Latin America – than desktop.

Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, said: “Access to the internet is improving in countries like India but there is still a very high proportion of people that would love the opportunity to connect and engage, but who cannot enjoy what many of us take for granted.

“Having no internet access naturally removes all associated opportunities that it brings which, in turn, can be a barrier to learning and ultimately hinder economic development. Through our long history of serving the Indian market we bring an in-depth understanding of rural Indian communities. We hope, together with Internet.org, we can use this know-how to understand better how a vital modern resource can benefit many more millions.”

While Facebook is spearheading Internet.org’s attempts to find ways to improve the world’s online connections, Google has played with its own ideas for boosting access. In June last year, the tech giant launched Project Loon, an initiative that saw around 20 giant superpressure balloons released in New Zealand to test the capability of floating internet access. Google said the balloons could provide 3G-like internet speeds in areas hit by disaster or emergency.