Internet.org doesn’t just want to make access to the mobile internet cheap in the developing world. It wants to make baseline connectivity free, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said at Mobile World Congress on Monday.
Zuckerberg isn’t talking about giving away video and other high-bandwidth services. Rather, he means opening up a set of core services such as a messaging, social networking and search. Those basic tools are not only enormously useful, but they act as what Zuckerberg called an “on-ramp to the internet” for people who have never opened a web browser before.
As Zuckerberg sees it, there are two big obstacles to connecting the world’s billions of unconnected: the cost of data plan and basic internet literacy. Not only is the cost of data prohibitive in countries where average income is a fraction of income in the west, but even those who could afford a data plan don’t see its value. “We’re really not on a path to getting everyone connected unless something drastic changes,” Zuckerberg said.
Internet.org proposes to use Facebook, Facebook Messenger and basic information apps like weather services and Wikipedia as a kind of collective AOL for the third world. As customers use those services those services, they’ll see the benefits of mobile data connectivity, graduate to other apps and content and eventually start subscribing to paid data plans, Zuckerberg said.
“It shows people why it’s rational and good for them to spend the limited money they have on access to the internet,” he said.
The key to that strategy are the carriers, who essentially need to subsidize their customers’ data plans with the expectation they’ll be rewarded with more data revenues in the future. Facebook is conducting trials with two carriers, Globe in the Philippines and Tigo in Paraguay, and both carriers have at least doubled the number of their customers using mobile data services. As long as carriers take the long view, they will be profitable, Zuckerberg said.
When asked about Facebook profiting from the arrangement, Zuckerberg dismissed the question, saying revenue growth wasn’t the goal of Internet.org or even feasible in the near term. The mobile advertising market is so underdeveloped in the countries Internet.org targets that Facebook couldn’t make any money if I wanted to. “We’re going to lose money on this for quite a while,” Zuckerberg said.