In the race between Google and Facebook over global connectivity, everyone wins

There are still 4 billion people in the world who are not online. While the global telecom industry has embraced this as one its most urgent issues (and opportunities), it’s worth recognizing that this is due in no small part to the significant efforts of Facebook and Google.
Both companies began talking about this issue a couple of years ago in a big way. And certainly when tech giants like Google and Facebook start making grandiose statements about how they want to make the world a better place, deep skepticism is warranted.
Tech companies are fond of leaning on digital utopianism to convince us that they’re doing something more vital for humanity than just selling dog food online. And in the case of companies that make money from our personal data and advertising, it’s in their long-term business interest to grow the pool of people sharing information over the Internet.
That said, this week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai came to Barcelona in large part to talk about these efforts, and to rally more support for them. And perhaps the best evidence of the significant impact they have already had is the conference itself. Over the course of four days, about a dozen panels will cover the topic of how to connect the next 1 billion people to the Internet.
During his keynote address on Monday, Zuckerberg talked about how he had been deeply moved by villagers he met who lived in India. They had petitioned the government to bring connectivity to a region near them, and then moved their entire village to that location so they could have Internet access.
“The thing that’s so striking to me is the lengths people will go to in order to get connectivity,” he said. “There are stories like that all over the world. And it’s very inspiring to see.”
While there are a lot of reasons people might not be online, part of the issue is cost of service, cost of devices, but also a lack of interest or understanding of why it might be important to be connected. The hope is that the wild popularity of Facebook serves as an incentive for some of these people to get online where they will eventually convert to paying customers over time.
There is wariness on the part of telecom operators about working with Facebook because they fear that services like WhatsApp are going to hurt their business by killing text messaging and offering free voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) services. Facebook’s argument is that over time, people will consume and pay for more data and that those revenues will replace and hopefully exceed whatever telecom carriers lose in the short term.
Zuckerberg emphasized over and over that he knew that for to succeed, it needs to help telecom carriers make more money so they have the resources to continue to invest in building infrastructure. For the moment, Facebook even strips out the VoIP services within the app as a part of a compromise with its telecom partners.
“We’re really serious about this,” Zuckerberg said. “But we want to work this out so it’s profitable for our partners.”