Mark Zuckerberg and 3 International Telecoms Address ‘Touchy’ Partnership

Internet.org's logistical issues are still ripe for debate

Give the World Mobile Congress organizers credit for bringing some real theater to the stage today. Mark Zuckerberg made a keynote appearance in Barcelona with three telecom executives from developing markets. And one of those execs—Jon Fredrik Baksaas, CEO of Telenor—hasn't yet chosen to officially partner with the Facebook CEO's Internet.org initiative, which aims to connect people through free apps versus traditional phone lines. 

Would the session provide a breakthrough?

Baksaas' Telenor serves Nordic and Southeast Asian countries, and he said he wondered if "there is a financial balance" to partnering with Facebook. He added that Facebook-owned WhatsApp—which is used internationally in lieu of a phone plan much more than it is in the U.S.—made talks with Zuckerberg "touchy." 

"This is a point of tension between Facebook and the operators," Baksaas said. 

Christian De Faria, CEO of Airtel Africa, partnered with Facebook last fall and has since seen "very encouraging" results. But he once held Baksaas' skepticism. 

"If you'd asked me a year ago, I would have said it was the beauty and the beast," De Faria explained. "I would say the beast is now more human." Facebook is the "beast" in De Faria's analogy.

Indeed, while Facebook may want to get the other half of the planet online with Internet.org, telecoms aren't always thrilled about footing the bill for the pipes, wires and satellite signals. Sure, they may want to help folks in rural areas get on the Web with a combination of education, lobbying for friendly country-by-country regulations, and logistical access. But they don't want to do so if it means investing in an infrastructure that creates fewer phone customers and even fewer data subscribers. Internet.org offers more than a dozen sites and apps for free, chiefly Facebook. 

"These apps drive data usage, and that's the future of the business," Zuckerberg countered. 

The third telco there helped bring that point home.

Mario Zanotti, senior evp of Latin America for Millicom, an Internet.org partner, said his company's mobile data users spiked by 30 percent in the past few months in Paraguay thanks to the Facebook-led initiative. Additionally, the concept began testing in Columbia three weeks ago, and Zanotti stated data-package purchases were seeing positive results. In Tanzania, he said, the results showed greater promise after Millicom's Tigo service launched the Internet.org app last October. 

"We have seen a tenfold increase in the number of smartphone sales since the Facebook campaign," Zanotti said. 

So Millicom's presentation implied there is money to be made via Internet.org.

Yet at the end of the 45-minute panel, there was no dramatic handshake between Baksaas and Zuckerberg. Though, it was clear all parties want to get the few billion households on the Internet—and on the books.

"What we are trying to do is create a model that's profitable for operators," said Zuckerberg, who launched Internet.org in 2013. 

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg was asked about building drones, lasers and satellites as part of an initiative to get more of the world's population online, which was revealed last year.

"We're [still] working on it," he said. "Some of the technology we have today isn't cost effective…. Over the next five to 10 years, there will be a lot of innovation. People like talking about that kind of stuff because it's sexy, but it's not the big bit."