Internet.org was formed last year between Facebook and six telecoms companies, including Samsung, Qualcomm and Nokia, with the aim of bringing affordable internet access to everybody in the world by reducing infrastructure costs, removing inefficiencies in networks and offering free or cheap mobile internet subscriptions.
Zuckerberg said he wanted to create services where people in developing countries can get free access to basic information, such as food prices, social networks, messaging, weather and Wikipedia – with a one-touch upsell button for users to purchase data plans in order for the service to generate revenue.
He described the service as being akin to the 911 emergency telephone number in the US and the vision of Internet.org becoming the “dial tone of the internet”.
He said research showed that countries that switch on internet access to their citizens can create hundreds of millions of jobs and even decrease child mortality rates.
For Facebook, Internet.org gives the social networking site a clear path to reach its next 1 billion users. However, Zuckerberg said it is unlikely investments in Internet.org would turn a profit in the short term because advertising markets in the territories it is working in are less advanced than Western regions. At the moment Internet.org is “near break even”.
“If you do something that’s good for the world, eventually it will be good for you some day,” Zuckerberg said.
Last year Facebook partnered with Globe Telecom – a partnership that pre-dates the launch of Internet.org – to bring free mobile internet access to the social network. Zuckerberg said gross subscriptions to Globe Telecom data plans are up 28 per cent as a result. A similar partnership in Paraguay with the Tigo network increased subscribers by 50 per cent and the number returning daily up 70 per cent, he added.
Internet.org is currently on the hunt for “three to five” additional partners to work with over the coming year on similar projects. Today (24 February) Unilever announced at Mobile World Congress it had partnered with the alliance to help bring mobile internet access to people in rural India – a move that will eventually benefit the FMCG company in allowing it to market to consumers it currently cannot reach effectively and gather information about their lifestyles.
Zuckerberg’s aim is to build the capacity to launch a “systematic programme” whereby any partner can roll out an Internet.org service.
“What I hope is that we can prove the model works and then get to a place where we can work with a larger number of carrier partners in the next two to three years,” he said.
Facebook has taken a leading role in Internet.org, largely due to its scale Zuckerberg said, adding thst connecting the global population to the internet is not a job a single company can do alone.
Separately, Zuckerberg also discussed Facebook’s $19bn purchase of mobile messaging app WhatsApp – a service he believes deserves an even higher price tag.
He said WhatsApp will run autonomously from Facebook but with access to its technology and talent, on growing the service to the next one to three billion users, rather than the social network looking to monetise it straight away.
He also insisted Facebook would not be using the acquisition to tap into data about WhatsApp’s users, adding that all messages sent on the service are deleted from its servers almost immediately after they are delivered.
An audience member asked Zuckerberg about whether Facebook would consider tabling another bid to acquire Snapchat, which reportedly turned down a $3bn offer.
He replied: “After buying a company for $19bn you are probably done for a while.”