Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a victory lap through Mobile World Congress Monday, right on the heels of Facebook's $16 billion purchase of WhatsApp -- and WhatsApp's announcement that it would roll out free phone calls to all of its 465 million users.
But Zuck's keynote (which was really a sit-down chat with The Facebook Effect author David Kirkpatrick) wasn't all about WhatsApp. Zuckerberg wanted to talk about his Internet.org initiative, and he did a terrific job staying on message.
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Internet.org is a coalition of Facebook and various partners -- such as Ericsson, as of Monday -- that has the lofty goal of connecting the entire world's population to the Internet. Zuckerberg says that while 80 percent of the world's people live somewhere that already has 2G or 3G networks, only about a third of humanity is connected -- and billions more people could benefit from a data plan, only they don't know why they need one.
So Internet.org works with carriers in these underserved places to provide basic Internet services for free, with easy one-click up-selling once they're hooked. For example, users can access the text elements of Facebook, but if they try to click a link for a video or an app, that level of service isn't supported... unless they'd like to buy a data plan.
"So it's kind of a gateway drug," Kirkpatrick quipped, as I was humming the song "Pusherman" to myself in the crowd. "We prefer to think of it as an on-ramp to the Internet," Zuckerberg replied. That definitely sounds better.
Kidding aside, it's still a win-win: The carriers get more subscribers and more revenue, and the unconnected get to experience the Internet for the first time. Zuckerberg compared the basic service level to 911. Here in the U.S., we know that anyone can call 911 for emergency services like the fire department, police, and ambulance. "We want to create a similar dial tone for the Internet," he explained, with basic services like weather, food prices, Wikipedia, and, yes, social media and messenging like Facebook and WhatsApp.
In the past year, Internet.org has worked with Globe Telecom in the Philippines, and has doubled the number of people who can use the Internet in that country, while also increasing Globe's subscriber base by 25 percent. "It's a home run," Zuckerberg said.
Chips off the 'berg
Zuckerberg is clearly passionate about Internet.org, patiently steering the conversation back to it whenever it would deviate. But Kirkpatrick and the questions from the audience did get him to toss out a few status updates about other topics too.