It is no secret that Bharti Airtel’s African adventure has not quite gone to plan. But the Indian-based company and the world’s third largest mobile carrier may have found an ace up its sleeve to help spur the company’s business on the continent: Partnering with Facebook.
“We have a strong partnership with Airtel and we continue to roll out internet.org with Airtel throughout Africa. With Airtel, we will be rolling it out in more countries after this month,” Chris Daniels, vice president of product for internet.org at Facebook, said last week.
In its march to grow its users around the world, Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site, helped launch internet.org, a free mobile internet service, last year in Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania. Accessible via www.internet.org, or as an app via Google Store, the platform makes certain sites available for free through select mobile service providers.
Despite boasting over 100 million users on the continent, this is a mere 10% of the Facebook’s global numbers. For a young continent, where the median age is 19 years old, the demographic typically interested in the social networking platform, the number could easily be higher.
“Africa’s attractiveness to companies such as Facebook is a no-brainer,” Manji Cheto, vice president of Teneo Intelligence, told Quartz. “Yet, the continent’s low internet penetration was always likely to constrain the company’s ability to significantly boost its user numbers.”
But mobile phone penetration stands at 69% and, through internet.org, Facebook is hoping to turn these users into Facebookers. “By partnering with Airtel, Facebook is able to access a much larger market than it may [not] ordinarily be able to do on its own—mobile phone subscribers on the continent are estimated at 650 million and Airtel holds significant share of this market,” Cheto says.
Through internet.org, Airtel customers are able to access, for free, such sites as BBC News, BBC Swahili, Facebook, Messenger, SuperSport and Wikipedia.
“The approach devised—where new users get free access to Facebook and a small amount of Internet content—is bit like a very small version of AOL in the early days of the Internet,” Russell Southwood, chief executive of Balancing Act, a research firm, told Quartz.
Both Facebook and Airtel, are hoping that internet.org is “transitional” for users, meaning that it will convert mobile users into becoming data subscribers. “It is a walled garden and in this instance if you stray outside you start paying data charges,” Southwood says.
There have been critics of Facebook’s internet.org, who argue that this is an attempt to mediate the internet experience for users in the developing world. “[Facebook] is doing its best to make the rest of the internet irrelevant,” The Guardian wrote in 2013. “Facebook is aiming for the one every big tech company tries for: monopoly or oligopoly.”
Not everyone agrees. “While concern that internet.org is ‘controlling access to information’ is somewhat justified, the service must equally be given credit for paving access to the internet,” Cheto says.