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Photo by: Art Streiber. There are many challenges to designing a plane to fly at 65, feet—higher than commercial planes and all but a few military aircraft. Cox devised a hot-air balloon to lift it up into the sky. The balloon will then deflate, fall to the ground with a tracking device, and be collected and recycled. The team also worked to prevent flutter—a condition that makes the drone vibrate uncontrollably. Right now the biggest challenge Aquila faces is regulatory. Facebook has joined with Alphabet formerly Google to address bureaucratic obstacles.

Its competitor has its own drone effort, Project Titan, incubating under its Access and Energy division. Project Loon, which aspires to beam the Internet from high-altitude balloons and is part of the Google X lab, is further along than either UAV endeavor and will test a partnership with several carriers in Indonesia this year. Both companies must cooperate with the Federal Aviation Administration to get permission for test flights—Facebook would prefer to conduct these closer to its headquarters.

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Google and Facebook will also need more spectrum for their projects to work. As with most Connectivity Lab projects, the company aims to develop the technology and then release it to outsiders to commercialize it. Facebook has a model for this in its Open Compute Project, which launched over two years ago to build more efficient, economical data centers.

Once Facebook made significant progress, it open-sourced its designs.

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The day after my visit, Cox and his team began to disassemble Aquila, weighing each component and testing the structure and all the motors, transistors, and propellers. Cox expected to fly Aquila last October.

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The date has since been pushed back several times. Through the program, called Free Basics, developers can offer lighter versions of their apps that take less time to load, that can work adequately on less robust 2G and 3G networks, and that lure users to want to use more data and become paying customers.

But the rollout, which began in , has not gone smoothly.

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  • Last April several Indian publishers withdrew their services from the app, claiming Facebook violated net neutrality by colluding with local carriers to offer free access to only a select group of services, putting others at a disadvantage. Then, in early May, Facebook opened its developer platform so anyone could launch a free app.

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    Because of the time difference between Menlo Park and Delhi, it was late in the evening at headquarters when Zuckerberg watched critics begin to pick up steam after the announcement. Incensed, he decided he wanted to address his critics directly.

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    He recorded a video. In it, the lights are off, the desks void of people, as Zuckerberg defends his initiative. His speech did not appease the naysayers. In mid-May, digital rights groups from 31 countries signed an open letter to Zuckerberg, saying Internet. Facebook responded by changing the name of its app from Internet.

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    The old name sounded too much like the app was the entire Internet. It also improved app security. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has stepped up his efforts, particularly in India. There, he said a million people were using the app in India and that it had so far brought 15 million people online. The skepticism, however, amplified. In December, Indian regulators issued a temporary ban on the service. Soon after, Facebook suspended its Free Basics service in Egypt, one of its earliest and most successful markets.

    Egyptian regulators chose not to renew a two-month permit that had expired. Facebook played a crucial role in organizing demonstrations in In early January, in a crackdown on activists, security forces arrested three people who administered 23 Facebook pages. While an Egyptian regulator told Reuters the suspension of Free Basics was not related to security concerns, 3 million people had access to the service, according to Facebook, including 1 million who had never before accessed the Internet.

    Zuckerberg, who is on paternity leave, continues to engage his critics directly, defending Internet. Alexia Webster. We fly to Polokwane, a city in the impoverished northeast. Devine and Wallace have forged a partnership in which Facebook finances hot spots in several villages and Isizwe monitors their upkeep. We drive north to check them out. Wallace and Devine are both very excited for me to meet someone they refer to only as the lady with the chicken shack. For the Internet to make a difference, people need to want to connect to it in the first place.

    Instead, a man lounges on a bench beneath a hot spot. He has a Samsung phone—on which he is not surfing the web. The hot spot had been up for a year, and according to the deal he and Devine have struck, users in this area can get a small amount of data for free. And they can check out the services on the Free Basics app—educational scholarships or maternal health information—as much as they want. The guy shrugs. The man takes his phone back. For Zuckerberg, this is the biggest trial of all.

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    Forget the political barriers, the lack of a profitable business model, and the technological hurdles. Forget the drones and lasers. And figuring out what people want from the web is as varied as the web itself. Just then, the lady with the chicken shack drives up in her white pickup truck and pops out to greet us. Her name is Norah Mphedziseni Namalale, but she says her friends call her Pedzi; she is She runs a business selling chicken skewers from a grill beneath the hot spot.

    She knows everything about it—when it goes down, who uses it, and why.

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    • Wallace thinks local entrepreneurs like Namalale may be the key to making the Internet take off here. He imagines ways he could enlist her to sell small data packages for local carriers, and, in return, Facebook and Isizwe could build more comfortable seating around her chicken stand. He tells me this model has already worked in Rishikesh, a small town at the mouth of the Ganges in northern India.

      Perhaps Namalale could be the person to convince the guy with the Samsung phone that he needs the Internet. But that would require many more conversations—and Wallace is part of a very small team of people doing this work in many villages and cities in a dozen countries. Such challenges could demoralize anyone. But Zuckerberg is taking a very long view. This past fall, as we discuss the backlash, the drawn-out process of testing the drones, and the challenge of persuading people to get on the Internet, Zuckerberg reflects back to one of his favorite stories from when he first started Facebook.

      It was a few nights after he launched the website. He and his computer science buddy were getting pizza and talking.