Facebook‘s internet.org project to get more people online in developing countries was the centre of Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelonaa. Announcements included a joint research and development lab with Ericsson at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, and a campaign with the GSMA to get tax breaks for mobile operators.
Facebook’s efforts to get “the next five billion Internet users” online were the main point in Zuckerberg’s Monday keynote at MWC 2014, and a blizzard of other projects to support it emerged. But the CEO also said the the £11.4bn price for Facebook’s purchase of mobile messaging service WhatsApp was justified – while the free communications startup announced a voice service alongside text
In justifying the purchase price for WhatsApp, Zuckerberg said he felt the company was worth that sum even on its own, apart from its strategic value for Facebook.
“The reality is there are very few services that reach a billion people in the world, and they’re all pretty valuable,” Zuckerberg said in his talk. “If we can do a pretty good job of helping WhatsApp to grow, this is going to be a huge business.”
Also on Monday at the show, WhatsApp announced it plans to launch voice services in the second quarter of this year, competing more pointedly with the mobile operators, and making WhatsApp look more like a potential competitor to Microsoft’s Skype.
Zuckerberg said the Internet.org initiative is “something that’s good for the world”, and that Facebook would look for ways of profiting from it later down the line. Along with the partnership with Ericsson, Facebook announced a pilot project for testing mobile technologies in Rwanda, a study from Deloitte into connectivity issues in developing countries, a Unilever research project into Internet connectivity in rural India and a GSM Association (GSMA) initiative to reduce mobile connectivity costs in developing countries, all in support of Internet.org.
The joint project with Ericsson, called the Internet.org Innovation Lab, is to simulate networking conditions in various developing countries around the world in order to allow engineers to optimise applications, networks, devices and services for particular markets. It is expected to open in the second half of this year.
Based on Ericsson’s Device and Application Verification service, announced at MWC 2013, the lab is intended to help engineers grapple with the complex differences in network environments, wireless technologies, mobile operating systems and devices in operation in different developing markets, the companies said.
“With this lab, developers will be able to simulate network conditions typically found in new markets, giving them an environment to test and optimise their applications under a number of different scenarios,” said Facebook vice president of infrastructure engineering Jay Parikh in a statement.
Facebook also announced a report from Deloitte (PDF) which found that bringing the levels of Internet access in developing countries up to the current standard in developed economies would increase productivity by as much as 25 percent, generate $2.2 trillion (£1.4tn) in GDP and more than 140 million new jobs, bringing 160 million people out of poverty.
Alongside Unilever’s research project into the barriers to Internet access in rural India, the Internet.org initiative launched a pilot project called SocialEDU, which will provide students in Rwanda with free access to educational materials via low-cost smartphones.
On Tuesday, Facebook and the GSMA announced a joint project to reduce mobile costs, improve mobile investment and boost mobile usage in developing countries, in part through pushing governments to lower taxes and fees on the mobile sector. The GSMA also said it would support efforts in developing countries to improve the availability of harmonised spectrum, establish more local Internet Exchange Points and foster local Internet content.
In support of its plans the GSMA published a study which argues for developing countries’ governments to tax mobile phone networks lightly, in order to benefit from the productivity they bring.
Facebook, which first grew to prominence as a desktop service, has more recently focused its efforts on the mobile market. Aside from the WhatsApp purchase, Facebook has launched mobile services such as a news aggregator and mobile payments, while acquiring companies with specialties in voice recognition and mobile data compression.
In October the company said its revenues had grown 60 percent thanks to mobile advertising sales.
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