Facebook: We're not building a wireless network

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Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) does not have any plans to build or operate its own wireless network, and is instead working with carriers and partners around the globe to connect more people to the mobile Internet, according to a Facebook executive.

In an interview with FierceWireless last week at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain, Chris Weasler, Facebook's head of global connectivity, outlined the social networking giant's vision of the wireless Internet. He also said that it's important for Facebook to focus on what it does best and leave the building of networks to operators.

"We are completely focused right now on partnering with operators," Weasler said. He said Facebook would leverage carriers' network infrastructure to connect more people, including through Internet.org, the organization it leads.

"Operators are the best at planning, deploying and operating their networks," he said. "And that is not something we have a core competency in. And so partnering is the right approach for us." Weasler noted that from its Silicon Valley headquarters, Facebook can also simulate the network conditions of any carrier network in any country to see how its apps are performing.

At MWC, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used a keynote appearance to push for Internet.org, which he said is geared toward encouraging wireless carriers in emerging markets to offer a free tier of Internet service with the goal of encouraging wireless subscribers to pay for additional Internet access. He said the coalition is designed to create a reliable program to help "on-ramp" those customers to the Internet by offering a free tier of service, and he called for three to five additional wireless carriers to join his Internet.org effort and test out a free tier of Internet service for at least a year.

Weasler said that since 2010 at least 150 operators have "zero-rated" Facebook, meaning that the service has not counted toward users' data usage. This year he said the goal is to deepen Internet.org's relationship with three to five carriers and "evolve that program to come up with a model that is sustainable that works for operators."

The Facebook executive said the focus is on "big markets where there's very low Internet penetration" in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. He said the goal is to establish a basic set of services "that give people an opportunity to use the Internet for the first time and to understand its value." The service will also allow people to seamlessly pay for content that is outside of what is free; in prepaid markets that would just go against a user's prepaid balance, Weasler said. Some free services could be messaging, weather, food prices, search and course, social networking. Most such services happen to be text based, Weasler said, making it a relatively light burden on carriers' networks--Internet.org is not asking carriers to zero-rate streaming video and other data-intensive services.

Internet.org's members include Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), MediaTek, Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Opera Software, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Samsung Electronics. Weasler said that over the last 10 years Facebook has "deepened its understanding of some of the hurdles of getting people onto the Internet more affordably" and "realized we're going to need to work with many like-minded partners to get this done."

It's not all altruistic, but Weasler said Facebook doesn't see Internet.org as a revenue stream from advertising. "There's no question that if we bring people onto the Internet that many of them probably will use Facebook. In the short term this is not meant to be a money maker."

Last fall Facebook joined the GSMA, the first Internet-based company to do so. "It makes sense to engage with [operators] more deeply and the GSMA is a great forum to participate in to make that happen," Weasler said. Joining the GSMA has practical benefits, he said, and allows Facebook to be involved in discussions on wireless developments outside of MWC. He said it is important for Facebook to intimately understand the evolution of networks and standards.  

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