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One year later, Internet.org opens to more mobile operators

Any mobile operator can now partner with the Facebook-backed initiative to expand Internet access around the world.

Internet.org is all about providing users free access to the Web. And now more operators can get in on the project. Internet.org

Internet.org, the brainchild of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will now make it easier for wireless carriers to join the platform.

In a blog post celebrating Internet.org's first birthday on Sunday, Facebook announced that it's opening up the platform to any mobile carrier around the world that wants to provide basic Internet services to people in underserved countries. Any operator that joins must agree to offer the basic services at no charge to Internet.org users.

Internet.org, which launched a year ago in Zambia, aims to get Internet access to people around the world that have heretofore never had Web access. In the last 12 months, Internet.org -- which is backed by Facebook, Nokia, Samsung and a handful of other prominent technology companies -- has gone online in 17 countries, making it available to over a billion people. Facebook didn't say how many people have actually joined the Internet.org platform.

At the core of Internet.org is the partnership Facebook can ink with wireless carriers. After a deal is signed, the carriers provide basic Internet access to Internet.org users free of charge. Internet.org users are equipped with basic devices that connect to carrier networks and get them online for the first time.

Once Internet.org users log on to their service via a mobile app or through the service's website, they're presented with approved applications, including Wikipedia, Facebook Messenger, UNICEF's Facts of Life health site and local news sites. They can also browse the Internet. All application partners adhere to strict guidelines established by Facebook that require apps to use minimal bandwidth so users aren't hobbled by the slow data speeds offered by carriers.

In May, Facebook announced that it was expanding its developer portal to any company or website that wanted to be part of Internet.org. The move was an attempt to address concerns that Internet.org was actually stifling a free and open Internet. Facebook had previously been criticized for choosing which services would be offered through its platform, thereby giving preferential treatment to certain sites and platforms, critics argued. Some have also criticized Facebook for forcing companies to offer their services for free -- an argument Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rebuffed. The ultimate goal of Internet.org, according to Zuckerberg, is to get the two-thirds of the world that has never been online onto the Internet.

"If you can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all," Zuckerberg said in an op-ed in India's Hindustan Times in April. In Sunday's blog post, Facebook added to his argument that free is better, saying that on average, users jump onto mobile networks 50 percent faster when services are offered at no charge.

As part of its plan to expand partnerships with carriers, Facebook on Sunday launched a new portal for prospective operators to sign on to Internet.org. The portal includes best practices and technical tools, and will allow any company with plans of offering network access to Internet.org users the ability to do so. Facebook previously partnered with more than a dozen providers.

While Facebook is still requiring all providers to offer their connectivity for free, the company tried to assuage concerns from companies that generate revenue charging for their services by saying that within the first 30 days, over half of the people that come online through Internet.org transition to faster, paid data plans.

"Internet.org is not only a successful tool in helping bring people online, but it is successful in showing people the value of the Internet and helping to accelerate its adoption," the company wrote in a statement.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.