Google, Facebook willing to work together to expand Internet access despite differing approaches

BARCELONA, Spain--Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) executives said that they are willing to work together to expand access to the Internet and basic web services, despite their contrasting visions for doing so.

In separate appearances and interviews her at Mobile World Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google product chief Sundar Pichai and the head of Facebook's Internet.org initiative said that the companies could collaborate, especially to bring Google services to first-time Internet users for free.

The Internet giants each have the goal of expanding Internet access, especially for first-time smartphone users. Yet while Google is investing in physical infrastructure to expand Internet connectivity in underserved parts of the world, Facebook, through Internet.org, has been partnering with operators in emerging markets to improve access and provide users with a tier of free basic Internet services.

"I would love to do more with them, and Sundar talked about their apps being more in partnership with Internet.org," Zuckerberg said during a keynote appearance here yesterday, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Indeed, Pichai said that Google would be happy to bring its services to Internet.org, and emphasized that Internet firms need to work together in the common pursuit of expanding connectivity.

"No one company can bring connectability at scale for 4 billion people, and we are happy to work with them to provide our services on Internet.org, so that's exciting for me," Pichai said during an appearance here yesterday, according to the AP. "Having said that, it's complementary, but what we are trying to do is different. We are trying to provide the actual backbone, the physical connectability at scale across the globe, so it is different."

"We'd be happy to work with Google," Chris Daniels, vice president of Internet.org, said during a roundtable discussion with reporters here. "In fact, we launched with Google services, with Google search as one of the free basic services in Zambia."

Daniels said that Google search is a service that helps consumers who have not been connected to the Internet see what is possible online, which then gets them interested in paying for more mobile data services through carrier partners. "More broadly, I think we share a similar vision in terms of the world being connected, and we'd be happy to work with Google in a variety of ways on advancing what's in the interest of the entire industry," he said.

Internet.org is now up and running in six countries: Columbia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, and Facebook is partnering with Airtel in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia; Tigo in Columbia and Tanzania, and Reliance in India, Daniels said.

The group's ambitious goal is to expand to 100 countries by the end of the year and eventually globally, but Daniels said that the market should focus less on the number of countries Internet.org expands to this year and more on expanding access broadly, including with multiple operators in different countries. He said Facebook is going to work to make it easier for operators to sign up to provide services.

The basic tier of free services includes a lightweight version of Facebook without photos or videos (which made it more palatable to carriers), and different services in categories like news, education, healthcare, basic financial services and job sites.

Zuckerberg said that Internet.org needs to be sustainable for carrier's business models, a concept Daniels expanded on. "I think what's sustainable for Internet.org is if more paying data customers are coming online every month when Internet.org is on vs. if it was off," he said. "I think it's that simple."

In the six countries where Internet.org has launched, Daniels said the venture is seeing Internet adoption rates spike by 40 percent, which he termed "significant." He noted that Tigo has seen the number of its data users in Columbia go up by 50 percent following the introduction of Internet.org and that in Tanzania smartphone sales increased by a factor of 10. "Bringing people online is good for the entire ecosystem," Daniels said. "Once people are online, attuned to the benefits of being online, they end up buying smartphones. You really get the entire ecosystem… benefiting and then being able to reinvest to improve the networks and network capacity."

Daniels said that as a result of Internet.org, a total of 7 million people have come online, a figure Internet.org expects to grow. However, the group will continue to work with operators, since, as Daniels noted, 90 percent of the world's population is covered by a mobile data network today.

"The best way we can go reach … the vast majority of the unconnected population is by working with operators," he said. "In order to work with operators you have to work in a way that is win-win. And so we have built the Internet.org product to make sure that it benefits operators and benefits their business models so they can continue to do the great work they have been doing, investing in infrastructure throughout the world."

Meanwhile, Google is continuing to push its own access efforts. Google's Project Link, which it started in 2013 in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, involves laying a fiber backbone to allow local carriers to launch services on top of that, and Pichai said operators are starting to deploy LTE service. He added that Google will roll out Project Link to more countries in Africa this year. Additionally, Google is starting large-scale commercial tests with operators for Project Loon, its plan to expand Internet access via balloons, including with Vodafone and Telefónica in New Zealand and Telstra in Australia. The search giant will also start testing flights of drones to provide connectivity via Project Titan in the next few months, Pichai said.

For more:
- see this AP article
- see this Telegraph article
- see this Android Central article

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