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Zuckerberg defends plans for free net access at Barcelona conference

Facebook founder is main draw as Mobile World Congress gets underway in Catalan capital

Google, Samsung and others unveil new products and services as four-day event begins

Mark Zuckerberg en el Mobile World Congress (MWC)
Mark Zuckerberg at the MWC in Barcelona on Monday. Getty Images

The Mobile World Congress (MWC) got officially underway in Barcelona on Monday with promises of innovation from some of the world’s top providers of mobile devices and services.

Some of the novelties unveiled on day one included a plan by telecoms operators, phone makers and SIM card manufacturers to create a universal SIM card that can be used with any operator or mobile device, making it easier for users to switch carriers.

Fujitsu announced a phone that authenticates users by scanning their iris, while Microsoft introduced two Lumia smartphones that will run on Windows 10. Ikea and Samsung presented a range of furniture that can charge mobile devices without the need for wires.

Google executive Sundar Pichai delivered a much-anticipated speech that touched on several issues, including the company’s plans to develop a mobile carrier in the US.

But the star of the show on Tuesday was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Last year, Zuckerberg drew a crowd that numbered in the hundreds to hear him talk about his decision to purchase WhatsApp.

This time round the Facebook founder used his appearance to talk about one of the topics that most worries operators: Internet.org, his project to provide free web access to the world’s poorest via an application.

Zuckerberg sought to reassure operators that his program, which is in motion in Colombia, Mexico, India and four African countries, was not a threat to their business. “Their business used to be about charging for voice calls and messages. Now it is about charging for data,” he said.

Google’s Sundar Pichai unveiled the firm’s plans to develop a mobile carrier at the WMC in Barcelona.
Google’s Sundar Pichai unveiled the firm’s plans to develop a mobile carrier at the WMC in Barcelona. Bloomberg

He urged operators to get on board, saying it would help bring in new customers. “If they want to sell data plans, people first have to know what the internet offers. We are giving them the tools so they can try it, so they know why they need it.

“We want to create a model that is beneficial for operators. The more people who buy data, the more money operators earn,” he argued.

Spain’s King Felipe VI was on hand to inaugurate the world’s largest annual telecoms gathering, where firms take the opportunity to showcase new products and deliver speeches on emerging trends in the world of mobile technology.

The Spanish monarch took a walk around the conference facilities at Fira Gran Via in the company of Catalan premier Artur Mas and Industry Minister José Manuel Soria. He also greeted dozens of people inside the Spain pavilion and talked to one of the Catalan companies with a presence at the trade fair.

The conference is this year scheduled to feature 250 speakers over four days.

Early on Tuesday, Telefónica chairman César Alierta opened the trade show with a speech aimed at convincing international executives that the Spanish economy has recovered from the crisis.

“Spain welcomes you in a very different situation from that of previous years. We have overcome a period of difficulty, and right now our country is registering one of the greatest economic growth and job-creation rates in Europe,” he said.

Another speaker, Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao, recommended raising customer rates in Spain to ensure that telecoms would be able to keep up their investment levels.

United States Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to give a talk on Tuesday following a recent vote on net neutrality back home.

King Felipe VI (c) with Industry Minister José Manuel Soria (l) and Catalan premier Artur Mas (r) at the inauguration of the WMC.
King Felipe VI (c) with Industry Minister José Manuel Soria (l) and Catalan premier Artur Mas (r) at the inauguration of the WMC. Atlas

This is the 10th year that the MWC has been held in the Catalan capital after moving from the French city of Cannes. The future location of the world meeting is now up for debate, as the current contract runs out in 2018.

“We will soon begin talks, although there is nothing yet,” said John Hoffman, CEO of the GSMA group of mobile operators that organizes the WMC. “We will also look at applications from other European cities like Milan.” Hoffman dined with King Felipe on Sunday night.

The mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, has warned that a lot is at stake. “We are making progress to see if we can keep the Congress until 2023. We will know in the next four months,” he said.

The figures support the city’s desire to hold on to an event that creates 12,500 temporary jobs and has an estimated economic impact of €436 million. The WMC attracts around 90,000 attendees from 201 countries – of whom over 50 percent are top executives – and showcases 2,000 exhibitors. Around 26,300 hotel rooms are booked during the four-day event, according to the organization’s estimates.