(Images by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)
BARCELONA — Mark Zuckerberg wants to connect the rest of the world to the Internet, and he’s not going to let a disapproving government or an uncooperative microphone discourage him.
The Facebook founder took part in an onstage Q&A session at Mobile World Congress with Wired writer Jessi Hempel that focused on the social network’s efforts to connect the unconnected. But the roughly 45-minute conversation — interrupted often by squeaks of microphone feedback — also touched on the priorities of the wireless industry, the potential of virtual reality, and his experiences as a new dad.
“It’s kind of crazy that we’re sitting here in 2016 … and 4 billion people in the world don’t have access to the Internet,” Zuckerberg told Hempel. “We just want to do what we can to help solve that.”
He said Facebook’s Internet.org project has brought more than 19 million people in 38 countries online in its first year and a half of existence.
But the ambitious campaign recently got a public rebuke when India’s telecommunications regulator ruled that Free Basics — in which wireless users get free but slow access to sites meeting the project’s bandwidth-efficiency requirements — violated that country’s net neutrality rules.
“Facebook isn’t a company that hits a roadblock and then gives up,” Zuckerberg said. “We take the hits that we get and we try to learn from them and just do better.“
In the case of India, Facebook will instead focus on other Internet.org programs such as the Telecom Infra Project announced Sunday. That effort, modeled after Facebook’s Open Compute project to make data centers more efficient, aims to develop and share cheaper and faster ways to extend wireless connectivity.
Zuckerberg also pointed to Express Wi-Fi, an initiative to make it easier for local businesses to resell bandwidth to their neighbors.
After the conversation pivoted to Facebook’s sci-fi venture into delivering Internet access from solar-powered drones that communicate via laser — a full-scale prototype should see its first trials later this year — Zuckerberg took a moment to critique the mobile industry gathered here for MWC.
“It would be possible for this industry to continue growing and making a lot of money while doubling down on faster connections for richer people,” he said. But in that case, he warned, “We’re going to be sitting here in 2020 … and there will still be almost half of the people in the world who won’t have access to the Internet.”
At home with VR
The discussion took another serious turn when Hempel asked Zuckerberg what he thought of Apple’s fight with the U.S. government over helping it break into the iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino killers.
Zuckerberg pronounced himself “sympathetic” toward Apple but also aware of the importance of helping to prevent terrorism. Pressed to clarify his stance, the visibly perspiring Zuckerberg said, “I don’t think requiring backdoors into encryption is really going to be an effective way to increase security or is going to be the right thing to do.“
Zuckerberg and Hempel also spent a fair amount of time talking about virtual reality — something that, if Zuckerberg’s forecasts pan out, will demand those faster connections that he doesn’t want telcos to obsess over to the exclusion of broader connectivity.
“It will be profound,” he said of VR. “It will require a pretty big upgrade in the quality of the networks.”
Zuckerberg expressed his hope, as he mentioned during his appearance during Samsung’s event Sunday night, of capturing his daughter’s first steps in virtual reality instead of mere photos and video.
Hempel asked if he was sure he’d be ready when his daughter, Maxima, already 3 months old, could be taking her first steps in six to nine months.
His answer: ”On the 360 video side, for sure.”
(As a dad myself, I suspect she was asking Zuckerberg if he’d be at home at the exact right moment. Good luck with that, sir.)
The Wired writer also asked Zuckerberg how comfortable he’d be with his daughter using Facebook.
“I have some time to figure that out,” he said, adding that his wife might have different ideas. “I have not actually worked out with Priscilla what our policy is.”