In an effort to get the next billion internet users online more quickly, mobile carriers across the globe are experimenting with offering digital content and service bundles without any data fees. And according to early trials, it’s working.
Facebook is leading the charge in this global initiative through its internet.org initiative, which it describes as a “global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts who are working together to bring the internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t (sic!) have it”. Facebook’s main premise has been just because you own an internet-connected phone doesn’t mean you are going to use it to access the internet; other incentives should exist for accessing the internet through your mobile device.
Enter internet.org’s app designed for lower-end smartphones. It’s a bundle of digital services and content that varies from country to country, but includes Facebook, Messenger, Wikipedia as well as local weather and local news services. Guy Rosen, product manager for internet.org, writes: “Over 85% of the world’s population lives in areas with existing cellular coverage, yet only about 30% of the total population accesses the internet. Affordability and awareness are significant barriers to internet adoption for many and today we are introducing the Internet.org app to make the internet accessible to more people by providing a set of free basic services.”
As a precursor to the launch of the internet.org app in 2013, Facebook partnered up with the Philippines’ largest telecommunications company to offer its 30 million customers a free Facebook service for a three-month period. What they found is that the telecom company was able to double its mobile data user base and increase its mobile browsing along with other data revenues by 42%. With that data, Facebook has been scaling its initiative through deals with carriers in Eastern Africa.
In July 2014, Facebook partnered up with Airtel in Zambia to launch the internet.org app. The free digital services made available to Airtel mobile customers include AccuWeather, Airtel, eZeLibrary, Facebook, Facts for Life, Google Search, Go Zambia Jobs, Kokoliko, MAMA (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action), Facebook Messenger, Wikipedia, WRAPP (Women’s Rights App) and Zambia uReport. Shortly after, Facebook made a deal with Tigo in Tanzania and on October 30th, internet.org was launched there with the same digital services along with additional content from the BBC, The Citizen, Tanzania’s English-language news site and the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect. In November 2014, internet.org was launched in Kenya with a similar set of services as well as Canadian success story Wattpad that over 35 million undiscovered and published writers use to share articles, stories, fan fiction and poems about anything either online or through the Wattpad app.
While Facebook’s strategy seems to be successful in getting new people to access web services via their mobile devices, critics of the initiative point out that getting a billion more people hooked on checking Facebook is primarily about creating more customers for Facebook. However, convincing telecommunications companies around the world to offer a set of basic digital services and content offerings to a market of a few billion people is creating a potentially lucrative window for digital content and service creators to leverage.
In June, T-Mobile launched an initiative enabling subscribers to access a number of the top music streaming services (free of any data charges) through Music Freedom. T-Mobile reports that “it has been wildly popular since its launch this summer and has also become a major draw to switch to T-Mobile.” T-Mobile goes on to report that in a recent survey of U.S. wireless users, 1 in 4 said that ”Music Freedom alone is a key reason they’ve switched or would switch to the un-carrier.” Also, according to Facebook, since June 2014, Facebook has averaged more than 1 billion video views every day and in just one year, the number of video posts per person has increased by 75% globally and 94% in the U.S. These numbers speak to Facebook’s every increasing importance in the distribution of online video content.
While carriers around the world along with Facebook should be applauded for their efforts and results in connecting the next billions, is the price of admission worth it? Will inclusion in these bundled services packages be key to achieving scale in these markets? Will the next Google or Facebook be able to launch in this type of environment? Apart from the esoteric questions about the future of the internet, it’s undeniable that there are multiple windows emerging for digital content and services targeting the next billion.
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