Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday said he is on the lookout for operator partners to help the Internet.org initiative, of which Facebook is a partner, extend cheap Internet access to unconnected citizens in developing economies.
Launched in August 2013, Internet.org is an alliance of tech companies, nonprofits, and telcos that together aim to build what Zuckerberg referred to as "an on-ramp to the Internet" by rolling out services that are incredibly basic and free to use.
"When you dial 9-1-1 you know you'll get access to a basic set of free services," he explained during an on-stage interview at Mobile World Congress.
Similarly, Internet.org wants to offer the unconnected free access to just a few stripped-down versions of online services like Facebook, Wikipedia, and local information and weather services. Users that want to browse other content can do so, but they must pay a small fee.
In order to give people free access to the Internet, delivering data needs to become cheaper and more efficient.
This is where operators come in, Zuckerberg said. As well as using them to carry Internet.org's services and provide the billing system, the alliance also hopes to learn how to reduce the amount bandwidth that various online services consume.
"Right now we don't have the capacity to work with a lot of [operator] partners, but we would like to work with between three and five," Zuckerberg said.
He hopes that Internet.org can help overcome what he sees as the two biggest barriers to Internet uptake: price and a lack of awareness when it comes to the benefits of being online.
Indeed, according to a Deloitte study commissioned by Facebook, if developing countries had the same level of Internet access as mature markets, together they would contribute an extra US$2.2 trillion in GDP, create 140 million new jobs and lift 160 million people out of poverty.
Meanwhile Zuckerberg also talked briefly about Facebook's deal to acquire popular OTT messaging service WhatsApp last week.
As well as again justifying the $19 billion price tag on the grounds that it has the potential to connect a billion people, he also insisted that Facebook is not