Zuckerberg tracks early success with Internet.org

Operators say that basic Internet service has stimulated interest in paid data services

zuckerberg at mwc2015

BARCELONA -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday congratulated three Internet service providers for their success with early Internet.org initiatives in six countries where much of the population has never been online.

"We want to help people connect, but we're not doing the actual digital connecting," Zuckerberg told a keynote audience at Mobile World Congress here. "We're connecting people with an app" on top of fiber optic cable and other infrastructure being built by wireless carriers around the world. The companies that Zuckerberg recognized were Airtel Africa, Millcom and Telenor Group.

He said Internet.org, a collaborative effort between Facebook and telecommunications providers, is operating well in four African nations as well as Colombia and India. Internet.org provides basic Internet service for those who have never used the Internet, so they can communicate with friends and family about all the things people discuss on social networks, including health and job concerns.

For the carriers involved, the basic services have also become an "on-ramp" for paid data services that helps sustain the charitable effort, he said.

"Facebook drives the data usage in developing markets," Zuckerberg said. "We use the social network as a driver [for data] and this needs to be sustainable. It costs tens of billions a year."

Zuckerberg said that while it is "sexy" to talk about using drones and satellites to help communities without access to connect to the Internet, the connectivity is mainly achieved through conventional telecommunications work.

"A lot of the press wants to write about experiments with ways to connect with balloons and satellites, but that's the fringe of the real work going on ... It costs a lot of money, and the only way to accelerate that is to grow the operator business faster," Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg appeared in the same forum at last year's Mobile World Congress to talk about Internet.org. The organization was first formed in August 2013 as a partnership between Facebook and seven large mobile companies, including Samsung and Microsoft, to bring about affordable Internet access to parts of the world with the most need.

The three carriers represented on the stage with Zuckerberg already serve dozens of countries where Internet access is severely limited or where the Internet reaches far fewer people than in the U.S. and other developed nations.

There is widespread concern by carriers that the free Internet services from Internet.org might encourage paying customers to drop their service in order to take advantage of the free access, but that's not what's happened, executives from the companies said.

"In a country with low Internet penetration, [Internet.org] is an entry point, and once people go to the Internet, they surf, so it's not cannibalization of revenue," said Christian De Faria, CEO of Airtel Africa. "Facebook is here to stay, so instead of trying to avoid it, let us work together." Many in the audience represent carriers throughout the world.

In Paraguay, after just a few months, Internet.org has increased the use of data by 30%, while in Tanzania interest in Internet.org has helped create a ten-fold increase in smartphone sales, according to Mario Zanotti, senior vice president of operations at Millicom.

Fredrik Baksaas, CEO of Telenor Group, said if the trend with Internet.org continues, "this means growth for the ecosystem in the long run."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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