Last year Mark Zuckerberg, the 30-year-old billionaire creator of Facebook, gave the keynote speech at the world’s biggest mobile conference in Barcelona, Mobile World Congress.
Speaking to several thousand telecoms execs Zuckerberg called on them to open up mobile internet for the poorest countries in the world and allow free access to basic internet services like weather, email and (of course) Facebook.
“These are just basic services that people should be able to access,” he said. And while this might sound a little too altruistic to some shareholders, Zuckerberg added: “If we do something good for the world... eventually we’ll find a way to benefit from it.” At the time there was audible laughter from telecoms bosses around the stage, at what was seen as a ludicrous demand.
Facebook’s shock $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp just days earlier was seen as a direct attack on mobile operators’ precious (yet declining) SMS revenues. Now the social network’s founder wanted them to ferry data between customers’ smartphones and the internet, for free. But over the past year things have changed.
By July African networks had started joining Zuckerberg’s Internet.org campaign, seeing how they could drive demand and the use of smartphones by opening up free access to basic internet services in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya. Tonight he will take to the stage once again and address telecoms execs on the latest developments of his plan to get more of the world online. And this year they won’t be laughing.