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Zuck: Facebook won't retry Free Basics in India

But will in other countries – can't let those frickin' drones and lasers go to waste, huh?

MWC16 Mark Zuckerberg says he'll find other ways to deliver connectivity to rural Indians, after his Free Basics program was rebuffed in India. But the program will press on in the other 37 countries.

Free Basics was just one of Facebook's initiatives, he stressed, which intended to bring the 4.1 billion unconnected people online. These include a British-designed and -built solar-powered plane, Aquila, laser-accelerated backhaul, as well as more conventional Wi-Fi programs.

"Every country is different," Zuckerberg said in a wide-ranging but gentle keynote interview at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Some 19 million people have connected for the first time worldwide in 38 countries, thanks to Free Basics, with one million of those in India. A million is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of Indians accessing the full internet for the first time – that was about 100 million in 2015.

But he stressed the conversion rate: around half converted from Free Basic's politically incorrect (according to net neutrality activists, anyway) Ceefax-esque pages to full-fat internet within a month.

"That's a pretty good first step," said Zuck. "The ruling in India says there's no differential pricing even for basic services. That's disappointing and a major step back in India," but it hasn't affected Basics in other countries, where it is due to be targeted by net neutrality activists, he added.

"In India we're going to focus on different programs. We want to work with all the partners."

Zuckerberg did sound a bit miffed that Facebook's "good intentions" hadn't been taken at face value, particularly since it had suspended its usual data-harvesting, ad-driven business model for Basics. Free Basics was going to be ad-free, and would be "until other people are making money."

European operators have grumbled long enough about OTT players to get a sympathetic hearing from the protectionist European Commission. Action has been promised.

"If you're saying that app developers should have the same rules as operators building physical towers and networks is where you lose me. Our relationship with customers is very different. You shouldn't add rules to app developers."

Zuckerberg says the relationship was "less antagonistic and more symbiotic" than people might think.

Perhaps he'd missed Friday's news. Hutchison's Three network has said it will start blocking ads at network level, if customers want, and other operators are keen to follow suit. The blocking technology not only denudes web pages, but also disconnects app developers from their ad servers. Alas, the WiReD editor interviewing Zuck had missed the news too, so he wasn't probed.

Zuckerberg was however quizzed on why he didn't use a nonprofit vehicle for the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative, leading to the charge that it was a massive tax dodge. That's because sometimes you need to invest in companies to achieve the goals, he said.

The solar-powered plane, designed and built in Bristol, can be seen here.

For areas like remote Amazon rainforest, Zuckerberg argues that this is far more cost effective than traditional telco mobile infrastructure. It spreads data connectivity over a 50km radius and can be aloft for 90 days, operating at between 60,000 and 90,000 feet. That's probably out of range even for one of Access Now's missiles. ®

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