, , ,

Free Facebook: A smart way for carriers to promote data usage

Facebook logo

A big chunk of mobile usage today involves instant messaging or chat, as well as social networking. On average, users spend 65 percent of their social networking on mobile devices, according to ComScore. Facebook itself says that 78 percent of its users access the social network on mobile devices.

This makes sense. After all, social networking inherently involves sharing personal updates and checking on feeds at one’s convenience. You don’t carry around a laptop everywhere you go, do you? Even tablets are not as portable as smartphones. This is one reason why Facebook is working with carriers around the world to provide cheap, if not free, access to the social network. This started with emerging markets, as part of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative. For instance, in certain countries in Asia and Africa, carriers are offering zero-rate access to Facebook services from both smartphones and data-enabled feature phones.

In the US, this seems to be the trend also. Take for instance T-Mobile’s MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) GoSmart, which will offer free access to Facebook from the Facebook app, Facebook Messenger and Facebook mobile site. “Facebook is the most important online communication tool we’ve seen come around,” said Gavin Dillon, T-Mobile’s vice president of partner brands.

Facebook itself is constantly optimizing its app for mobile usage and has implemented code that enables the free access when a user is on these networks (another example is Globe Telecom in the Philippines). With free access, users can actually chat using Facebook Messenger without spending a dime on data charges. Prepaid users can even access Facebook without mobile credits.

It’s free, but is there a catch?

The catch here, of course, is that the free data applies only from within Facebook, which includes content and other elements like photos and videos. Step out of Facebook’s bounds, and you will need to consume data from your regular allocation. Here is where mobile providers can expect to attract users in using more data. Of course, depending on market, smartphone users are likely to be subscribed to a data plan anyway, but this does not apply to everyone.

On GoSmart, plans start at $25 monthly for unlimited talk, plus $5 for unlimited texting, and then another $35 monthly for low-speed data access (3G requires an additional $10 on top of the data plan). This is reasonable enough for light usage, especially considering the no-contract requirement. GoSmart is not alone in offering no-contract prepaid plans for smartphones, however. You can take your pick from other prepaid providers, although the free Facebook offer is currently available on GoSmart.

The Facebook app will actually warn users if clicking links will require data access outside of Facebook, as this will incur charges outside of the free zone. Here’s where mobile carriers can potentially encourage users to access more content from their smartphones, tablets and mobile devices. Go outside of Facebook’s walled garden, and you will need to be subscribed to a data plan. And here’s the rub: most smartphones will consume data in the background anyway, for both push notifications and pull-based updates.

Watch out for data leakage

Here’s where Android has an advantage over iOS, actually. Android users have better, more granular, control over data access than iOS, which means that there is less data leakage, translating to lower costs outside of the free Facebook usage (unless Apple has finally found a way to plug data leakage issues in iCloud, push notification services and other possible sources). Either way, it’s a win-win situation for the user, carrier and Facebook. Users get to enjoy free access to the social network, including even free instant messaging. Networks get to encourage data usage (even if this might eat into SMS revenues because of the free Facebook messaging). Facebook gets to encourage users to use the mobile apps more actively.

This seems to be the trend nowadays: free stuff can encourage bigger consumption or usage, which can then encourage the purchase of premium items or services. It looks like Facebook has found a good strategy for mobile.