Having played a central role in connecting people with smartphones and computers through Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has now set his sights on the developing world. Zuckerberg announced in August an initiative called Internet.org, an effort to make big cuts to the cost of broadband access. Billed as a philanthropic endeavor, the initiative hopes to supply connectivity to the 4 billion people now without Internet access.

The project has support from companies such as Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm and Ericsson, as well as individual technology leaders, nonprofits and local communities. Google has decided to remain separate from the initiative for now, citing its own efforts to expand access in the developing world, including the deployment of Internet balloons around the globe.

Part of Internet.org’s goal is reducing the amount of data that needs to be transmitted by various applications and services, therefore lowering the bar a user needs to reach to have effective access to the Internet. Zuckerberg is starting with the Facebook mobile app, working to reduce the current average of a user transmitting 12 megabytes a day to 1 megabyte.

The concept of Internet.org is still fresh and in the early stages, so the entire picture of how Zuckerberg and partners plan to connect the entire world is yet unknown. But the idea has people talking. Government Technology spoke with some public-sector CIOs to get their thoughts on Internet.org and how it could change what the future looks like.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO for Palo Alto, Calif.

Reichental called Zuckerberg’s goal “unprecedented,” but cautioned that it’s just a proposal at the moment. He said the “devil’s in the details,” but was excited at what the initiative could accomplish if seven billion people are connected on a worldwide scale.

Although the U.S. has made much progress in addressing the digital divide, Reichental believes that we still have a long way to go and that much more work needs to be done abroad.

In places where there is Internet access, people immediately take for granted the convenience and improvements in quality of life, he explained. Whether it’s for making dinner reservations, furthering education, paying a bill, or communicating with friends and family, the value created by the foundation that is Internet connectivity is impossible to quantify.

“We are riding on it and reliant on it,” Reichental said. “But in other areas where there’s no Internet access, they have in equal measure all the disadvantages.” He added that for each person with Internet access who is receiving medical care online or being entertained by a YouTube video, there are two people who are not connected to those services.

Having access to the Internet means an almost immediate improvement in quality of life, Reichental explained. Although obvious things like education, medicine and information are provided through the Internet, going online also makes it harder for dictators to subvert the will of their people.

“Information rises to the national level or the international level and the fact that there’s a light shining on an area can change the behavior of repressive regimes and local governments and people who would want to do bad things,” he said.

Kristin Russell, Colorado State CIO

In Colorado, it’s part of Russell’s job to lead economic development through IT and a big part of that is making broadband Internet available to people. She called it a “critical structural component” that is required to bridge the digital divide between multiple communities, whether they are international, national or local.

Through the Ghana Educational Collaborative, Colorado has connected schools in the state with schools in the Republic of Ghana, Africa, in an effort to not just reap the rewards of increased connectivity locally, but also to share those benefits abroad, she said. “That type of technology is really going to be so key to helping everybody come up in society,” Russell said.

Russell felt that as Internet.org moves forward, one of the keys to its success will be continued involvement and oversight by someone with the resources to make needed adjustments. She said that just as it's impractical to use dial-up Internet today, it's not practical for leaders to deploy technology in underserved areas and then just walk away, or those people could simply become stuck in a technological past. There must be a system in place that will allow for growth.

Marc Touitou, San Francisco CIO

Touitou is excited about what Zuckerberg is doing, and he’s eager to learn more about it and find out how San Francisco can get involved.

“I think it’s totally cool and I’m supportive of the vision because it’s mine as well,” he said. “That’s how it starts. It starts by someone saying it’s a normal thing to provide. You cannot let people not have connectivity.”

Touitou’s vision is for San Francisco to become a “smart city.” And to be smart, they need two things: collaboration and connectivity. He feels that connectivity, essential for his vision of San Francisco, is also indispensable for the rest of the world.

The CIO has set a goal of San Francisco being the first city to offer free citywide Wi-Fi. So far, San Francisco has received $600,000 from Google to deploy the service in 31 parks, recreation centers and plazas.

Touitou admitted that some of his colleagues don’t understand why he thinks it’s so important to offer everyone connectivity. But he felt the opposing view will someday seem silly. He believes making technology available to people is not a luxury, because it will ultimately be mandatory for anyone who wants to be a functioning member of society.

“I applaud the vision of ‘we want to connect the world,’” Touitou said. “Mark [Zuckerberg] has always been a visionary in that, but the very substance of his company makes it almost a no-brainer. Connecting people is more than just a social thing. It’s recognizing that connectivity is a must if you want to leave no one behind.”

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.