Zuckerberg warns mobile industry not to ignore the unconnected

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Mark Zuckerberg, CEO – Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, warned Congress delegates not to overlook the task of connecting some four billion people that still don’t have access to the web.

Under questioning, he expressed “disappointment” that the 5G industry focus was on connecting things rather than the unconnected, and that there was a danger of just providing “faster connections” for rich people.

If that trend continued, argued Zuckerberg, there was a likelihood of making only a small dent in the unconnected number when Congress meets in 2020. “We need to finish the job of internet access,” he said.

Internet.org, a Facebook initiative launched three years ago to connect the world’s population, has made significant progress, insisted Zuckerberg, despite a major setback in India where the Free Basics service was banned.

Free Basics offers users free access to a certain range of data services – including the social network – but not the full internet. Much to the delight of ardent net neutrality supporters, who felt Free Basics and its use of zero rating unfairly manipulated internet usage, India’s authorities ruled against it.

Zuckerberg, however, gave no sign of wanting to change the Free Basics model. “Every country is different,” he said pragmatically, pointing out that Free Basics was still available in 38 countries and that it was responsible for attracting 19 million more people to the internet who didn’t have access before.

“I can’t think of any other project that has had such a big impact,” said the Facebook CEO.

He also claimed that 50 per cent of Free Basics users, after using the service for a month, opted for a paid data package from operators.

Aside from Free Basics, Zuckerberg emphasised other aspects of Internet.org, plus his desire to cooperate with operators and other ecosystem players to work together to lower infrastructure costs for expanding internet access into difficult-to-reach places. This, he suggested, might feed into lower data prices for consumers.

Zuckerberg expects to ramp up tests of solar-powered drones, equipped with laser technology to provide internet access, starting later this year, and that he would be in talks with operators about ways to deploy them.

The Facebook CEO also flagged Telecom Infra Project, a newly-launched engineering-focused initiative from Facebook designed to bring together operators, infrastructure providers, system integrators and other tech companies to develop new approaches to infrastructure.