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Facebook-backed app offers free Internet access in Zambia

Last year, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced a sweeping partnership with a handful of tech firms  to connect billions of people in the developing world to the Internet. On Thursday, the group, called,  launched its first consumer-facing tool-- an app that will help connect people to online career, research and health resources for free.

The app launches first this week in Zambia, where has worked out deals with the carrier Airtel to support the service. In addition to Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Google's search engine, the app also provides free connections to AccuWeather, Unicef, job search sites in Zambia, and women's health and rights organizations.

"Right now, only 15% of people in Zambia have access to the Internet," Zuckerberg said in a message on his own Facebook profile. "Soon, everyone will be able to use the internet for free to find jobs, get help with reproductive health and other aspects of health, and use tools like Facebook to stay connected with the people they love."

Zuckerberg said that has plans to roll the new app out in more countries across the globe over time. "Over the past year we've been working with mobile operators around the world to deliver on this goal," he said. "We're starting to see this vision become a reality, and we've already helped 3 million people access the internet who had no access before."

The companies involved in, which includes other heavyweights, such as Ericsson, Qualcomm and Samsung, are interested in improving global access to the Internet. Yet the project also presents an opportunity for these firms to get new customers and users as people gain access to the Web's most basic services. Getting in on the ground level helps these companies extend their potential reach, and it doesn't hurt their public images, either.

"Affordability and awareness are significant barriers to internet adoption for many and today we are introducing the app to make the internet accessible to more people by providing a set of free basic services," wrote Guy Rosen, the app's project management director, in a blog post.

World Bank data from 2013 estimates that 38.1 percent of the world's population can get online; countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, in general, have the fewest citizens with access to the Internet.