Zuckerberg took to the stage for the second year in a row at Mobile World Congress in
Barcelona to talk about the progress of internet.org, the
initiative he spearheads designed to bring the next billion people
online. Focussing on the progress internet.org has made over the
last year, Zuckerberg chose to share the limelight with several
operator partners Facebook has been
working with over the past year, and actively downplayed the social
network’s importance in the initiative.
Zuckerberg believes that Internet.org has an image problem in
that the wrong people getting the credit for connecting the world.
“We’re not doing the actual digital connecting; we’re trying to
help people connect with each other,” he argues. “Internet.org is
conflated with Facebook… the face of what internet.org needs to be
are the companies that are actually building the infrastructure and
laying the cables in the ground.”
Facebook obviously does play a role in the initiative, but that
role is basically to act as the gateway drug — or “on-ramp”, as
Zuckerberg puts it — to lure people into discovering more content
and more applications in order to that they will see the value of
investing in data plans and become fully fledged paid-up customers
of the operators.
“There are a lot people that just haven’t grown up with the
internet,” he says. “First you have to explain why the person would
to be on the internet.” This is where Facebook comes in. It is not
the how that will solve the connection problem, but the why. The
tactics vary from market to market, and Facebook works with its
partners in each individual country to collectively decide what
would be the best motivator – whether that be health, education or
something else entirely — to get people online, and they craft a
custom programme accordingly.
“The overwhelming feedback we’ve heard from our partners is that
it works.” People are starting to use not only more data once
they’ve had access tot he very basic services Facebook and the
operators provide, he adds, but they use make more voice calls and
send more text messages too.
This addresses a rather sore point between Facebook and the
operators, many of whom see services like Facebook Messenger and
WhatsApp (which Facebook also owns) as cannibalising their
traditional revenue streams due to the fact it doesn’t cost
anything extra to send messages or make calls using data.
Zuckerberg called the situation “nuanced”, but said that ultimately
“people understand that there are going to be messaging apps”. When
pressed, he emphasised that as he was not a regulator, he wasn’t in
a position to comment on how the industry should resolve this
particular issue, but that the industry needed to continue to
Plus, he adds,”Facebook we know drives data usage… we have these
services that people love and are drivers of data use. It’s a
profitable model for our partners.”
This is the message Zuckerberg wants operators to remember, and
has for some time. His passionate call to action for partners
during last year’s keynote and his humility and deference towards
them this year sends a strong message: you don’t need to fear
Facebook; you aren’t the lesser partner here.
As long as the conversion rate from free users to paid users
remains as high as the trials seem to suggest they will, it seems
like an attractive prospect for operators to sign up. Zuckerberg
believes that this is possible and that the internet.org programme
could run indefinitely. It will not, he believes
encourage people to only take advantage of the free, pared-back
services on offer and hold off from signing up for more.
“What were looking to do is basically create a model that
is profitable for operator to have on perpetually.” People so far
have been upgrading becoming paid customers in droves, he adds. “As
longs that is true, it will make sense to keep the experience on