If Marc Zuckerberg has his way, Facebook will become the "on ramp" for the two-thirds of the world's population not yet connected to the Internet.
"We want to create a similar dial tone for the Internet," Zuckerberg said, comparing basic online service to using a landline phone during a keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Monday.
Zuckerberg's remarks focused on Internet.org, a collaborative effort among telecommunications carriers, Facebook and other groups to provide free or inexpensive Internet access. Facebook announced the project last August.
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The issue, Zuckerberg said Monday, is not a lack of infrastructure, at least in areas near major cities. More than 80 percent of people worldwide have 2G or 3G access, Zuckerberg said. But the problem is that many people do not understand why they would want the Internet, or what to do with it, Zuckerberg said.
"People say, 'I don't know why I would want a data plan,' but they will say, 'Yes, I want Facebook or WhatsApp,'" Zuckerberg said, referring to the mobile messaging service Facebook announced last week that it is buying for US$19 billion. WhatsApp could play a major role in the program, given that its mobile messaging service works over the Internet and soon it will offer Internet telephony as well.
Once Internet.org is fully rolled out, the idea is that Facebook and other technology companies will work with carriers to provide free or low-cost basic Internet access. That's already what Facebook has done through the program in the Philippines with the service provider Globe.
What Facebook envisions for ISPs is a model that can help them gain more subscribers and connect more people, Zuckerberg said. It would be up to the ISPs to decide which services to bundle free, Zuckerberg said.
One way that Internet.org could generate revenue is through up-selling data-heavy content, Zuckerberg said. While someone is scrolling through their Facebook news feed, they might come across a link to something that's not included in the basic services offered through Internet.org. Clicking on the link could give them the option for a low-cost data plan allowing more bandwidth-heavy content like streaming video, for instance.
In addition to Globe, Facebook has also partnered with carrier Tigo in Paraguay in the early stages of the Internet.org. project. Over the next year, Facebook is hoping to find three to five more partners to roll out some basic Internet services in more countries. Ultimately, Facebook hopes to bring some form of Internet access to at least 2 billion to 3 billion more people.
Facebook has roughly 1.2 billion monthly active users total, according to the company's figures.
Globe, for its part, started offering a "Free Facebook for All" program in October, offering Facebook access to smartphone users who are not on data plans. The initial offer was from Oct. 25 and was planned to last three months, but was extended twice, and the current offer is slated to end in April.
Globe was interested in working with Facebook to spur subscriber interest in data plans.
"We've offered 3G access since 2006, but there was very little take up of data plans," said Peter Bithos, chief operating officer of Globe Telecom, which is the second biggest carrier in the Philippines with 38 million subscribers.
Globe worked with Facebook to allow users to purchase data plans from within Facebook. They also offer a loan program, giving people immediate access to a data plan, allowing them to pay the next time they top off payment for their service.
"The risk we took was that we would lose money, because most people buy data plans to get Facebook," Bithos said. "So if we were offering it for free, the risk was that people would stop using Facebook and take the free offer."
The company has not lost money, but it's not been a roaring success either. After extending the offer twice, Globe has doubled the number of subscribers using smartphones to access the Internet, Bithos said.
"We want to turn that into a commercial success," said Bithos, who is not ruling out a further extension of the offer.
(Marc Ferranti contributed to this report from Barcelona.)