Zuckerberg: Carriers will connect the world, not sci-fi

Facebook's CEO downplays Google's drone and balloon ideas for broadening Net access, saying it's the carriers that are doing the lion's share of the work to connect the world's billions.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Mobile World Congress 2015.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Mobile World Congress 2015. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA -- It's regular carriers and regular technology that will bring Internet access to the billions of people who lack it today, not sci-fi ideas like Google's Project Loon balloons or Project Titan drones, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg thinks.

"People like talking about that stuff because it's sexy," Zuckerberg said of such departures from networks delivered by plain old cell phone towers and fiber-optic lines. "That's at the fringe of the real work that's going on. Ninety percent of the people in the world already live within range of the network."

Instead, it's carriers that will do most of the work, he said in an onstage interview here at the Mobile World Congress show. That view will doubtless be received warmly at the show, which is run by those network operators. But Zuckerberg has a stake in the work, too, having championed an effort called Internet.org to bring Internet access to the world's billions who lack it today.

The core idea behind Internet.org is to offer free access to a number of Internet services -- including Facebook, of course -- to get people online. First carriers build the infrastructure to support those new customers, then many of those customers upgrade to higher-end, more profitable mobile network plans. It's a broad vision -- and one that will likely transform parts of the world as much as wealthy countries have already changed.

And it'll be good for network operators, too, Zuckerberg said. "It's a profitable model for our partners."

Protecting carrier revenue

One concern, that paying customers would move to the free tier, turns out not to be a worry, he added. "The feedback from partners is not only do more people start adopting data, but people use more voice and SMS and pay for that even more. We've seen a lot of cases where ARPU [average revenue per user] goes up," he said. "Even in countries like Colombia, where half the people are already on the Internet, there's massive upside."

The partnership isn't always easy. Jon Fredrik Baksaas, CEO of the major global carrier Telenor Group, said Facebook's WhatsApp text-message app eats into carriers' SMS revenue and erodes the customer relationship with carriers.

"The messaging side is an important revenue driver in the old telecom world," Baksaas said, joining Zuckerberg on stage. Even though carriers are shifting to accommodate Net-based services WhatsApp is still an issue. "This is a point of tension between the operator community and Facebook, because we don't want to see that revenue stream move too quickly."

For his part, Zuckerberg said he's sensitive to the issue. In the Internet.org suite of services, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are never an option, he said.

"Those would be too cannibalistic," Zuckerberg said, meaning that they'd gobble up other revenue sources.

Carriers new face of Internet.org

Facebook is a founding Internet.org partner, but Zuckerberg thinks it's time for his carrier partners to move to the fore.

"Going forward the face of Internet.org needs to be the companies doing the work, laying the fiber in the ground, building the infrastructure that's actually connecting people in the world," Zuckerberg said.

There's still a role for sci-fi ideas, Zuckerberg said, though he didn't mention by name Google's Project Loon, which delivers Internet access from roving high-altitude balloons, and Project Titan, which does the same from solar-powered drone airplanes.

"The operators are doing a good job reaching people in rural areas," Zuckerberg said, "but a lot of the technology isn't efficient enough to cost-effectively serve people in rural areas."