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Facebook's push for 4.4 billion new users

Kevin Chupka
Executive Producer/Writer

With 1.44 billion monthly active users it’s not hard to understand why critics of Facebook (FB) say the company doesn’t have room to grow.

Still, based on Facebook’s numbers there are 5.56 billion people on this planet who are not on the social media platform. The vast majority of those people simply don’t have access to the internet. 4.4 billion of them in fact, according to a study released last fall from McKinsey & Company.

While it was reported yesterday that Facebook -- and Google (GOOGL) for that matter -- are scrapping plans for satellite-based internet, Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org website still prominently features a video with a solar powered drone flying over a remote part of the globe, beaming internet down to the ground.

The Internet.org app also provides free access to basic services like weather and health information in places where the internet may not be affordable.

Last week, Facebook announced a streamlined version of its own Android app (Facebook Lite) that would be less data heavy and could open up access to markets in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It also, of course, opens up those markets to mobile advertising as well.

So yes, Facebook is hoping to connect parts of the world that don’t have access, but they’re also hoping to profit from it.

“If you’re poor, you’re living under a tarp [in the developing world],” says Monica Mehta of Seventh Capital, “I think if you have a little bit more money in your pocket you’re not really focused on buying a Heineken or getting a Netflix (NFLX) subscription. You’re really focused on enlarging your tarp.”

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Mehta says, putting aside what the priority of the poor around the world should be, Facebook and companies like it have more hurdles than just getting broadband into these parts of the world. Once it’s there you still have a customer base that is largely illiterate and may not know the first thing about using a smartphone.

The middle classes of the developing world, says Mehta, are the population these companies may have a chance at appealing to but “democratizing this for the very poor - no, they need a tarp.”

Facebook has launched a stripped-down version of its app aimed at the huge potential user base in emerging markets.

Yahoo Finance Columnist Rick Newman, on the other hand, sees the merits of programs like Internet.org and Facebook’s solar internet drones. “Banking has taken off on phones in some places like Africa,” he notes, “and I think what that tells you is you can develop businesses without all the infrastructure that we think about you would ordinarily need, especially since in some countries they’re just bypassing that infrastructure because of the smartphone which is basically a computer...I don’t automatically assume it would be a bad thing if people who just don’t have a lot of disposable income do have access to Facebook. They may find it useful.”

Still, while Mehta and Newman may not agree on whether Facebook should be exploring these untapped markets, they both think Zuckerberg and company are uniquely positioned to give it a go.

“Facebook is actually killing it on mobile,” Newman extols. “They’re doing better than almost anybody and there was a lot of skepticism about that. I think it’s fair to think about Facebook as a leader in terms of what to do with mobile phones. They’ve figured it out pretty well so far and they might have some useful ideas here.”

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