Zuckerberg goes on charm offensive with wireless carriers at Mobile World Congress for Internet.org

Mark Zuckerberg Mobile World CongressBusiness Insider/James CookMark Zuckerberg speaking at Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona.

Mark Zuckerberg sought to make his appearance at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year sit more comfortably with wireless carriers than the last.

In 2014, Zuckerberg used his appearance at the trade show to plug Internet.org — Faceobok’s not-for-profit initiative to connect “the next billion” to the internet, offering services such as Facebook, search, and weather for free in developing countries. He asked for up to five of the world’s biggest carriers to sign up, asking them to offer basic wireless services for free in the hope that once people had tried the internet for the first time, they’d sign up to pay for more data.

That didn’t sit well with some carriers — well aware that Facebook had also just paid $US19 billion to acquire Whatsapp, an over-the-top service that has meant the number of SMS messages sent has dramatically dropped — concerned Facebook wanted them to stump up the infrastructure costs (even Zuckberg admitted on 0 and give yet more services away for free.

This year, Zuckerberg began his keynote at Mobile World Congress full of praise for carriers and the wider mobile industry: “The folks here part of industry are leading charge to connect everyone in the world and have been for decades. They have a long legacy and history in the sense of mission in industry, that’s why all these folks are doing all the work to lay all the fibre, and build all towers to get this done.”

Later on he insisted that more important than the update on Internet.org’s progress to date was the fact that he was inviting launch partners on stage to discuss their experiences with the initiative so far. He was joined by Airtel Africa CEO Christian De Faria, Millicom SVP of operations Mario Zanotti, and GSMA chairman and Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas.

Zanotti, for example, said that since its Internet.org trial started, there has been a 30% increase in customers paying for data, and a 10 fold increase in smartphone sales. Airtel’s De Faria concurred, saying the carrier had seen “not seen erosion,” despite giving some internet services away for free through Internet.org

Zuckerberg did not provide much by way of an update on Internet.org that was not already out there. Internet.org is currently available in six countries: Four in Africa, Colombia, and India.

He did offer some personal updates from his travels to those countries: He visited a “cyber village” in Jakarta where children are teaching adults how to use the internet, and how Indian Prime Minister Modi “used the internet as a primary campaigning tool to connect with people.”

He wasn’t here at Mobile World Congress to tal about the new bells and whistles (or “satellites and planes,” or “drones and lasers”) Facebook is using to help get people connected.

“People like talking about that stuff because it’s sexy, actually the bigger deal is there are a lot of people who have grown up without the internet,” Zuckerberg said.

There was barely a mention of Facebook at Zuckerberg’s keynote at Mobile World Congress this year (the same as the last.) But the message from the stage was loud and clear: Zuckerberg wants more operators on board and he is determined that it won’t affect their businesses, at least not in the long-term.

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