Mark Zuckerberg wants to get everyone on Earth connected to the internet.
Last week, in an effort to reach this lofty goal, the Facebook CEO announced the establishment ofInternet.org, a consortium that allied his company with handset makers (Nokia, Samsung, Ericcson), a browser company (Opera), and network infrastructure manufacturers (Qualcomm, MediaTek). In a 10-page white paper shared on, yes, Facebook, he postulated that a connected world could address economic disparity and outlined a vision of even the poorest people connecting to low-cost, low-data versions of basic Internet services.
Reaction was mixed, both to the white paper and to the accompanying video, which used a John F. Kennedy speech to amplify a visual message that connectivity leads to better human relations. So WIRED welcomed the opportunity to discuss the plan face-to-face with Zuckerberg on the company’s Menlo Park, California campus. Here is the interview, edited for space and clarity.
WIRED: Why form a coalition to spread global connectivity?
Zuckerberg: The Internet is an important foundation in improving the world, but it doesn’t build itself. Over the past few years, we’ve invested more than a billion dollars in connecting people in developing countries. We have a product called Facebook for Every Phone, which provides our service on feature phones; it has 100 million users. But no one company or government can build out a full stack of infrastructure to support this around the world. So you need to work together with folks. Since we’ve announced Internet.org, we’ve heard from operators around the world and governments who want to work with us. This is going to provide momentum to make this work over the next 3 to 5 years, or however long it’s going to take.
WIRED: You say connectivity is a human right — up there with freedom of expression, freedom from hunger, and other essential rights. Can you explain?
Zuckerberg: The story of the next century is the transition from an industrial, resource-based economy, to a knowledge economy. An industrial economy is zero sum. If you own an oil field, I cannot go in that same oil field. But knowledge works differently. If you know something, then you can share that — and then the whole world gets richer. But until that happens, there’s a big disparity in wealth. The richest 500 million have way more money than the next 6 billion combined. You solve that by getting everyone online, and into the knowledge economy — by building out the global Internet.
WIRED: But we have a connected knowledge economy here in the United States, and the income disparity has never been worse. We also seem more polarized.
Zuckerberg: A transition naturally has to take place. I taught at a local middle school this year, and a lot of students there didn’t have access to the Internet at home. So there’s a lot of work we need to do in the U.S. It won’t be like, “Snap your fingers, everyone has the Internet, and now the world is fixed.” The Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in a decade, either. You need a foundation so that the change can happen.
WIRED: Won’t phones get cheaper whether you do a consortium or not?
Zuckerberg: Just because smartphones get cheap doesn’t mean that people who have them can afford data access. For instance, the cost of ownership in the U.S. of an iPhone for two years is $2,000 — $500 for the phone and the $1,500 or so is the data. The data’s way more expensive than the phone. So the biggest issue is making data access cheaper, figuring out how to provide this Internet dial tone for free, and then building a business model on top of that.
WIRED: How do you make data cheaper?
Zuckerberg: We spent a lot of time trying to make our apps run faster, crash less, and have fewer bugs, but until this year, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time on delivering the same experience with less data. It just wasn’t important to a lot of the people who use our services in developed countries. But it’s critically important to the next few billion. In the beginning of this year, the average person used about 12 megabytes for the Android app on Facebook, and I think over the next couple of years, we’re going be able to get that down to one megabyte a day, with very few changes. Since one megabyte is still too much for a lot of the world, the question becomes, Can you get to half a megabyte or a third?
WIRED: Can you make it so a text-based Internet is almost free?
Zuckerberg: The text in my entire white paper is less than a tenth of a megabyte. But a 30-second video like the one we did for Internet.org can easily be 50 to 100 megabytes, and that’s taking advantage of a lot of investment made in compression technologies. But the number I gave for the text document doesn’t involve compression at all. So there’s more opportunity to do compression for the basic services than there are for things like video.
WIRED: Certainly, the telecom carriers can help with this by providing more bandwidth at cheaper rates. Right now, they aren’t in your consortium. Will that change?
Zuckerberg: Absolutely. More folks will join over time, both carriers and non-carriers.
WIRED: Other consumer Internet companies like Google, Amazon, or Microsoft aren’t in your consortium now. Did you ask them, and do you expect them to eventually join?
Zuckerberg: A lot of companies are doing a lot of good work in this space. We’ve talked to Google and Microsoft. I think over time some of these companies will choose to join. The things that I’m focused on for Internet.org require collaboration between companies.
WIRED: It’s odd to hear you talk about going back to low-data consumption text models, when the direction of Facebook has been the opposite — adding more rich media and services.
Zuckerberg: After we help everyone get on the Internet and get basic access, then the next challenge will be getting everyone to have really high net access, so it doesn’t stop.
WIRED: Your white paper talks about creating new business models to spread connectivity. Can you give an example?
Zuckerberg: The basic vision I have is kind of like picking up a phone anywhere. Even if you don’t have a voice plan, you can still call 911 and get basic services. I think we can get to a model where a lot of those things are free for people who can’t afford them. I’m talking about things like messages, Wikipedia, search engines, social networks, weather access, commodities prices. I call this the dial tone for the Internet. We want to make the service so it just works, where any person — even one who couldn’t afford data in the old model — can walk into a store, get a phone, and get this Internet dial tone for these basic services.
WIRED: Who would pay for that?
Zuckerberg: The thing that’s valuable about social networks and messaging and search engines is that they’re portals to more content. By making basic access to those things free, people would actually end up discovering more content on a sustainable basis, then accessing and using more data than they would otherwise. It would end up being a very profitable model for carriers. Operators will make more money from the new people who can pay than it will cost them offer the free services.
WIRED: Does Facebook want to take on the role of providing online identity for these new billions of users?
Zuckerberg: In a lot of developing countries, it’s hard to know persistently who your customer is. If you’re an operator in India, and someone buys service by going to a retail store and putting money and data on their SIM card, you don’t know a lot about who that person is. Being able to create a longer-term relationship with that customer would be very valuable. I don’t want to pretend that we’re the only company that can do this, but if we can create some value there, this would definitely be something we’d be interested in.
WIRED: Why not do this as a foundation or non-profit?
Zuckerberg: This problem won’t get solved through altruism alone. Tens of billions of dollars a year get spent on building out this infrastructure. It’s too much to be sustained by philanthropy. There has to be a sustainable model. There are a lot of companies whose job it is to deliver this. So far, a lot of that work has just kind of happened, but to make this vision happen, companies need to work together. Internet.org can help.
WIRED: Your critics are saying that Internet.org is a self-interested means for Facebook to build its user base.
Zuckerberg: Of course, we want to help connect more people, so theoretically we do benefit from this. But that criticism is kind of crazy. The billion people who are already on Facebook have way, way more money than the next 6 billion people combined. If we wanted to focus on just making money, the right strategy for us would be to focus solely on the developed countries and the people already on Facebook, increasing their engagement rather than having these other folks join. Our service is free, and there aren’t developed ad markets in a lot of these countries. So for a very long time this may not be profitable for us. But I’m willing to make that investment because I think it’s really good for the world.
WIRED: What engages you personally in this effort?
Zuckerberg: It’s pretty clear that anyone who has a phone should be able to access the Internet. People often talk about how big a change social media had been for our culture here in the U.S. But imagine how much bigger a change it will be when a developing country comes online for the first time ever. We use things like Facebook to share news and keep in touch with our friends, but in those countries, they’ll use this for deciding what kind of government they want to have. Getting access to health care information for the first time ever. Staying connected to someone a hundred miles away in a different village that they haven’t seen in a decade. This is one of the biggest challenges in our generation, and it’s wonderful to see companies come together to try to solve it.