Connecting the world doesn’t have to be a cutthroat competition, Mark Zuckerberg signalled on stage at Mobile World Congress earlier today
When asked if Facebook’s Internet.org access initiative would consider working with Google’s Project Loon, he said “Sure. When we launched the Internet.org app in Zambia with our operator partner there…one of the apps we launched with was Google Search, because search is an important product and piece of functionality people around the world want. I would love to do more with them, and Sundar (Pichai, Google SVP) talked about their apps being more in partnership with Internet.org.”
However, Zuckerberg did throw a little shade at Google’s efforts to extend network connections to people in remote areas through hot air balloons. He noted “90% of people in the world already live in range of a network. While it’s kind of sexy to talk about satellites [lasers, and other high-tech ways to distribute an Internet connection], the real work happens here”, referring to Mobile World Congress itself.
What he meant was that the barriers to access are really the cost of data plans and lack of education about why the Internet is important. Zuckerberg said it’s Internet.org’s mobile operator partners that are making the real investments and bets on behalf of access. They build the network infrastructure like towers and are trying zero-rating plans for free access to limited parts of the web.
The Internet.org app is now available to 500 million people in six countries. Facebook says 7 million people used mobile data for the first time thanks to its partnerships. Operators increased their rate of acquisition of new customers by 40% after supporting Internet.org’s app.
In conclusion, Zuckerberg reiterated what he’s said since Internet.org launched its effort to connect the rest of the world. Internet accessibility is a social good mission for Facebook, but it must be a sustainable business for mobile carriers. If giving away access doesn’t eventually lead to more data plan sales, carriers won’t be able to support democratization of the knowledge economy.
Essentially, through zero-rated apps like Internet.org, citizens of a country can get free data access to a limited set of “basic Internet services” that include Facebook, Facebook Messenger, health tips, civic participation instructions, human rights information, and sometimes third-party services like Google Search and Wikipedia.
But to access any other part of the web, free users hit a roadblock where they’re asked to buy a data plan. The question is whether operators are actually scoring new customers in exchange for subsidizing access for those who can’t afford it.
Luckily, Mobile World Congress then had several operator executives come out to discuss the business success of giving away access. Operator Tigo’s CEO Christian Ruiz Diaz said that in Paraguay, his company has seen a 30% increase in paying customers in the few months since Tigo began supporting the free Internet.org app. Facebook also says Tigo saw a 50% increase in data users in Colombia and a 10X increase in monthly smartphone sales in Tanzania since launching the Internet.org app.
Zuckerberg proudly noted that “The overwhelming feedback we’re hearing from our partners is that it works. It grows the Internet and grows their business. Those are the two things we set out to work with partners to do and we’re really excited.”
Of course, long-term, helping people get on the Internet has business potential for Facebook and Google too. By facilitating access, these platforms endear themselves to web rookies who might even mistake their multi-featured services for the Internet itself. Forging this relationship could pay dividends down the line if previously unconnected people become loyal Facebook or Google users.
Monetizing in the developing world is tough because buying power is low, and currencies aren’t equivalent. But tech’s giants will probably be able to make money eventually if they can be the first step people take to getting online.