Giving It Away

Facebook’s Zero-Rate Plan for India

Facebook_India_lThere’s a connectivity arms race underway. Western firms are racing to pick up the data tab for the under-connected, looking for innovative ways to provide cost-free mobile access to sites and services. From balloons to drones to satellites, nothing is off the table. However, the most pragmatic approach for now is to partner with local wireless operators to create more traditional sponsored-data plans.

Facebook will partner with operator Reliance to give six states in India free access to a series of useful Web sites. Reliance customers in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Mahararashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana will be able to access 38 sites free of data charges. The list includes BBC News, Bing Search, Facebook, India Today, NDTV, Reuters Market, Translator and Wikipedia, and these can be reached via a dedicated Android app or through Opera’s browser on feature phones.

The Reliance partnership is part of a larger project initiated by Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg: In 2013, Facebook co-founded the partnership together with Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, and it’s established sponsored-data plans in Colombia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia to date.

The Facebook–Reliance partnership provides momentum for the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans of broadband for “every village in the country”, part of an ambitious infrastructure expansion programme. Mr Modi has a tech-savvy attitude, recognizing the benefits of a well-connected and well-banked country (see Daily Insight: The Long Trail: India Aims to Bring Internet to Every Village). India currently has 150 million Internet users in a population of almost 1.3 billion.

The zero-rated programmes are commendable, but there are other long-term motives as the plans also provide Internet services an opportunity to build a brand and establish a presence in emerging markets. The walled-garden approach will encourage competing services to form similar partnerships. Other Internet services and e-commerce sites would be wise to join the wave.