BARCELONA -- Internet.org, which is already offering free Internet service in six countries, has ambitious plans to connect to 100 countries in the next year.
"We like big, ambitious goals at Facebook," said Chris Daniels, head of Internet.org in a discussion with several reporters at Mobile World Congress (MWC).
Facebook and several partners founded Internet.org two years ago; it is already serving 7 million customers in Columbia, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, India and Zambia. Many of those who were originally connected for free are now paying some fee for more advanced data services.
Daniels, a vice president at Facebook in charge of Internet.org, said the conversion of free Internet users to paying customers is critical to the carriers who provide the Internet infrastructure that makes the service possible.
He sounded the same refrain that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered on Monday in a keynote presentation at MWC with three onstage carriers, including Airtel Africa, which has offered Internet.org in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. Millicom, another partner, saw a 30% increase in data users when free data data was launched in Paraguay.
While the goal of 100 countries in a year is ambitious, Daniels said it is achievable, partly because Internet.org has figured out how to work with carriers to offer online services for free that don't cannibalize the paid services that are the lifeblood of many carriers.
"It's ambitious to say 100 countries, but our focus is less on the number and to focus more on spreading Internet.org to added companies," he said. "We've had early partners and have brought more [users] online and more are paying for data and buying voice and SMS."
Some carriers have been skeptical; Jon Fredrik Baksaas, CEO of Telenor Group, said during the Zuckerberg appearance that initial successes need to be long-lasting to prompt widespread carrier adoption. Daniels said that Internet.org wants to operate in every country in the world, includings the U.S., where a digital divide affects many inner city and rural communities.
"We would love to see Internet.org even in some of the most developed nations where pockets are not online and there are issues around [Internet] awareness and affordability," Daniels said.
Daniels said he visits communities without Internet in countries around the globe and tries to meet people to understand what can interest them in Internet use. Those visits "ground us," he said. "We do run into skepticism and it's natural when you're not using something. Then the solution is to prove the Internet to people and give it away free so that they can start to see the value."
Daniels said carriers are central to that effort. After early trials, Internet.org also learned how to pare back its free Internet offering to avoid network limitations and other carrier concerns. "One of the biggest objections with the initial test partners was around the sustainability of the model with free full-featured Facebook," he said. "We listened and...took out photos and videos and left some basic functionality. If they want richer features, they have to buy a data plan."
As a result, Daniels said, the rate of Internet adoptions has still gone up by 40% in early country rollouts.
Users of Internet.com can download an Android app to use it or browse on the Web to find it. There's no iOS app, since iPhone and iPad users aren't typically seeking free Internet. "IOS is not a focus for us," Daniels said.
Daniels showed off the Internet.org interface used in Columbia on his smartphone, and it was essentially a list of different services that users can click on for further information. While the services vary in each locale, the top line item in Columbia on Internet.org is "Facebook-free data," followed by Wikipedia, then BabyCenter & Mama (for early childhood information) and other items such as AccuWeather.
Daniels also said that Internet.org is eager to continue to work with Google, especially for search with free Internet service. "We're happy to have Google search as a free basic service," he said.
While Internet.org has relied on carriers to provide infrastructure for free Internet, work at Facebook continues on alternative provisioning technologies such as lasers, drones and satellites, Daniels said. "We continue to work on these technologies and the reason is to reduce the cost of connectivity by an order of magnitude so connectivity can reach 100% [globally] in the next few years."
While Daniels wouldn't share details, he said that Facebook is "investing deeply" in Internet.org. "it's not costly, but we're [driven] by our mission to give people the power to share and make the world open and connected."
Once more countries are on board, Daniels said the free basic service model should continue. "We'd like to see it ongoing. We'd like to see free basic services always available. Operators will leave it on only if it continues to benefit their business."