Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage for his keynote presentation at Mobile World Congress this evening in a seemingly humble mood, which considering Forbes just placed him as the 16th richest person on Earth might have been a little surprising. The theme of the talk – presented as a mock interview with Wired journalist Jessi Hempel – wasn’t about the joys of being in the less-than-0.00000001%, though. Rather it was a stocktake of 16 months of internet.org, the Zuckerberg-led initiative to zero rate basic mobile data services in developing countries.But this was no tub thumping exercise about saving the planet through tech and changing lives with internet connectivity. Zuckerberg played down Facebook’s role in internet.org and began his presentation by praising mobile operators all over the world. While wacky projects like Google Loon and Facebook’s drone and laser net get tech press excited, he said, “the real work” is done by operators laying cables and making big investments in infrastructure.
When talking about the rapid increase of internet penetration in developing nations, Zuckerberg was quick to turn attention to “the real companies that are driving this are the operators and all the investment they’ve put in this.”
This was a direct line thrown to a mobile industry that’s sometimes struggled to accept internet.org. Back at Africacom in November, Facebook’s representative got a rough ride from operators wary of US-owned over the top services, which are often perceived as using networks own infrastructure to steal their own customers. In this bleak view, Facebook or Google drives down the cost of bandwidth by encouraging people to expect it for free, while at the same time denying operators the opportunity to create lucrative data services because they don’t have the international scale to compete.Oftentimes, the comments are vicious.
The purpose, it seemed, was to convince viewers in the audience that Facebook isn’t coming to steal their supper. At one point Zuckerberg stressed that he wanted to separate internet.org, the alliance of partners who want to lower the costs of internet access, from its Facebook origins. In an interview he gave to Bloomberg last week, Zuckerberg reiterated that there’s no short term plan to monetise internet.org users by carrying ads – the focus is to be kept on the healthcare and education services as long as possible.
Stats came at one point: Milicom says that 30% of people in Paraguay use internet.org, while Airtel reckons a quarter of Zambians use it. Importantly – for the operators at least – the theory that internet.org is a taste of the internet and will encourage people to use more is being borne out in practice.
“People buying data because of internet.org,” said Airtel’s CEO Christian de Faria, “There is appetite, there is a huge appetite for data in Africa… People using internet.org are using 30% more data overall.”
In this scenario, says Zuckerberg, Facebook is just one service among many in the internet.org app, one that people will sign up to use – and like it or loathe it Facebook is something people want to use. And once they’re signed up, they realise the benefits of using the internet outside of Facebook and never want to stop.
“The big deal is that a lot of people haven’t grown up with the internet or computers,” he said, “And when they come and say give me a data plan, first you have to explain why they need the internet in the first place. And that’s what we’re trying to do with free basic services.”
And the important thing this time round at Mobile World Congress wasn’t all the wonderful things people can do with the internet, like access information about maternal health or the facts about ebola.
“We go out of our way to make sure that the services are offered in each country [are agreed with partners],” Zuckerberg said, “We don’t offer Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, because that would be cannibalistic. We want it to be profitable model for our partners.”
Meanwhile, while Zuckerberg was hoping to get mobile operators to “like” Facebook again, Google was briefing press in the US that it’s ready to launch its Loon balloons for real, promising free internet for all from their hippy dirigibles. Perhaps the GSMA will haul Sergey Brin up on stage next year to explain himself?