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Why Is Facebook Distancing Itself from Its Own CEO's Free Internet Plan?

Zuckerberg insisted mobile network operators are the real force behind the project.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Mar 2 2015, 7:45pm

​Image: ​WikiMedia Commons

​Internet.org, Facebook's pet project to expand gl​obal internet access, doesn't really have very much to do with Facebook, according to Mark Zuckerberg.

Instead, Facebook's founder and CEO insisted mobile network operators are the real force behind the project.

"Too often, Internet.org is conflated with Facebook," Zuckerberg said while speaking at a keynote address at the Mobile World Congress (Europe's answer to the Consumer Electronics Show) on Monday. "Going forward, what the face of Internet.org needs to be is the companies that are actually doing the work, that are laying the fiber in the ground, that are building the infrastructure that is actually connecting people around the world."

To users, Internet.​org is an app that gives people access to certain internet services for free on their phone, without having to pay for data. It's currently deployed in Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Colombia, Tanzania, India, and offers access to websites related to employment and health. But the app also gives users access to Facebook—and for many users, Facebook will be their first foray onto the web.

Nevertheless, Zuckerberg downplayed the social network's influence over Internet.org's users. He said the company's goal is to lure new users onto the free service, which will in turn expose them to all of the possibilities the internet has to offer, and eventually compel them to pay for data to expand their access.

"We're not really the ones who are leading this. We can help because Facebook is one of the primary apps that people want to use so therefore it drives data usage," he told the crowd in Barcelona. "But it's really important not to lose sight of the fact that the real companies that are driving this are the operators."

Zuckerberg was joined on stage by the heads of three mobile operators participating in the program. Christian De Faria, the CEO of Airtel Africa which provides the Internet.org access in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, called Facebook "the beauty and the beast," depending on how an operator deals with them. Many operators have found that Facebook eats into their business by providing free messaging and voice calls through WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

"I think the beast is becoming more human," De Faria said. "The experience in the last year has been very positive. We are not a partner, but we are working together."

Zuckerberg pointed out that though the messaging services are available on Internet.org, the Voice over IP calling is not available in the Internet.org app. He also said that while Facebook and Google's experiments in delivering internet via ​drones, lasers, and balloons garners a lot of attention, they aren't likely how internet will be brought to the underserved masses.

"That's actually the fringe of the real work that's going on. The reality is that 90 percent of people in the world actually already live within range of a network," Zuckerberg said. "While it's sexy to talk about satellites and all this stuff, the real work happens here."

Case in point: Tanzania saw a tenfold increase in the number of smartphone sales since the start of the campaign, according to Mario Zanotti, senior vice president of operations for Millicom. In Columbia, where the company also operates, there's been a 50 percent increase in the number of data customers, Zanotti said.

But Facebook's enthusiasm for expanding global internet access as quickly as possible is stillraising some eyeb​rows from those who question the company's motivations. Just last week the company released a report on globa​l internet access, breaking down connectivity rate around the globe and Facebook's efforts to increase access to the web. But it was clear what message he wanted the hundreds of attendees to take away: Internet.org is not about Facebook, even though it kind of is.