Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Facebook Zero: A Paradigm Shift

Just a week ago I was in Cape Town talking about how entrepreneurs in Africa are looking at the prepaid mobile phone market and are trying to solve for the cost structures for data provided by the mobile carriers. Who knew that internet giant Facebook would beat them to it?

Facebook ZeroThis week Facebook launched 0.facebook.com, where they worked out deals with 50 mobile operators in 45 countries to either zero-rate data costs coming to that URL, or paying that data cost themselves. This means that anyone, even those with no airtime on their mobile phone, can still take part in Facebook.

“Thanks to the help of mobile operators we collaborated with, people can access 0.facebook.com without any data charges. Using 0.facebook.com is completely free. People will only pay for data charges when they view photos or when they leave 0.facebook.com to browse other mobile sites. When they click to view a photo or browse another mobile site a notification page will appear to confirm that they will be charged if they want to leave 0.facebook.com”

Interestingly enough, 5 of the 6 largest Facebook using countries in Africa do not have access to this service yet: Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Kenya.

Top Facebook Countries in Africa

Facebook Zero is launching in these countries

Why this matters

What has happened is that Facebook, even with all of their problems and questionable ethical moves on privacy issues, still have a great strategist with a global perspective in their midst. What they have realized is that the only way to increase penetration in the developing world is to cover the data costs for their users (or, if lucky, snooker a mobile operator into not charging them for it).

I pay for someone to visit this blog. I pay my web hosting fees and that means that you can visit it for free. Almost. Unless you’re on a free WiFi service you still have to pay your ISP to connect to the internet. This is akin to me paying off your ISP for when you visit my website.

It’s a big deal, and I think we’ll see a lot more of this happening. It raises the bar for everyone else. If you want to play in this league, you now need to pay off the mobile operator for the traffic that goes your way. Meanwhile the mobile operators laugh all the way to the bank – it’s a huge win for them, and a big score for mobile web consumers in the developing world.


  1. This *is* a big deal. Bravo, Facebook. At least you’re doing something right lately.

  2. Is this the final straw where the Internet turns into radio? Stations pay broadcasters their fees and recoup them by selling advertising. Will more websites completely switch to this model as long as we are using such large infrastructure? Broadcasters in radio just started buying up local content and began running the stations themselves.

    Where do the Hams come in? Will we start seeing rogue wide-area networks growing up based on technologies demonstrated in the the OLPC XO and the Mesh Potato? It would almost be like the early days of the Internet, where it was about sharing content and knowledge and not so much consuming media-generated websites. Opera Unite shows the possibilities of personal server software made easy.

    Such a not-so-distant future reminds me of the book The Peace War where technologists are forced into such rogue, mesh like, situations and how they develop big-infrastructure-like capability on consumer-level technology.

    It’s early and my mind was drifting. Pole.

  3. This is a BIG idea whose time has come.

    However let us remember for now larger social networks still have have difficulties in Africa where other than problem with data costs and infrastructure cultural needs do need to be met.

    Therefore i think a situation where differentiated and localized approaches needs to be encouraged going forward.

    Here is my take on this issue and what Whive.com as an organisation is doing to bridge this gap http://bit.ly/bonU0V

    Paradigm shifts are needed…

  4. Jon,

    Need I tell you that this is not going to become a common model for every website out there? There are legions of websites out there (unlike in radio); not all of them are going to jump on this bandwagon. And besides, whereas, ISP’s can charge individual users for access to their service, broadcasters cannot because of the limitations of the technology.

  5. @david

    I was just thinking aloud this morning when I commented, but now that david has challenged me, let’s dive more in depth into the notion of reverse charging websites.

    I think that, despite all the millions (billions?) of websites out there, it’s very possible to reverse charge on many of them, because they all share a common denominator of the hosting provider. As server farms become larger and larger, and hosting becomes less and less expensive, hosting providers will be able to work with their own bandwidth providers to provide reverse charge services. It could become a simple icon on the cPanel for http://davidandjoncooktogether.com.

    Of course the question would be, why? Aside from in the US and some other developed countries, many ISPs are charging for Internet connectivity in pre-measured allotments anyways, just as is done for the phone. Imagine being the end user of that allotment and being able to surf a website for free. Imagine if all websites from rackspace were free! think about how much your traffic would go up.

    I think there is a very real possibility for the notion of reverse-charged websites to take over even the smallest hosted site, especially since ISPs around the world are making more and more noise about their operating costs and the end of cheap, unlimited, Internet

  6. Hey Hash, ITweb is reporting that this service is available on MTN in South Africa. link here.
    I guess only time will tell.

  7. just something i have noticed , facebooks loads faster than gmail anywhere in africa at least kenya,ethiopia and Ghana. so when travelling end up communicating more with FB than gmail.

  8. This is just the last in a long line of plays by FB to own all social interactions on the Web. Why would you use any other social network service (e.g. Twitter) if you could access FB for free? Why would you use any other email service (e.g. GMail) if you could message over FB for free? Nope, I don’t like this one bit…

  9. Sorry, that should have read “the latest in a long line of plays” – it certainly won’t be the last.

  10. Jon,

    Aside from the excitement of starting a culinary site with you, and you teaching people how to make grasshopper chocolate bars, I’m still very much in disagreement with you. One, as a website owner, I won’t always care enough to pay potential visitors’ ISP fees for their visit to my site. Depending on the site, their visit just might not be worth quite that much to me.

    Sure, there may be plenty of sites out there that want to do this. But not me. And not many other people. And even if my web hosting company someday mandates this, and adds it into my hosting fees, there will always be another that I could move to which doesn’t require such a practice.

    Even if this does become a common practice … heck even if my site and every other site did it … there are still just a few fixed costs in some types of Internet connections (hookups, for example), for which I’m not sure even Facebook would be willing to pay.

    Now let’s take a look at Youtube. That uses a LOT of bandwidth. Is Youtube really willing to pay for all of the bandwidth you would incur using their service? (FB Zero doesn’t even pay for the photos viewed.) Does their advertising cover the cost they’d have to pay to your ISP? Of course, I won’t even get into the costs incurred by many filesharing sites (and perhaps they would die off under this model).

    That’s my two cents.

  11. Wow. A paradigm shift indeed — and a very bad and dangerous one at that.

    This is yet another step towards replacing the open internet (anyone can publish, create, innovate, make money) with closed networks where one or a small number of organizations make the rules (apple app store also comes to mind). Think baazar vs. shopping mall. Or, as another commenter noted, HAM vs. big broadcast radio.

    The scariest thing is that it’s not even a question of motivations. Even if Facebook (or other big players using this model) have wonderful intentions, the end result is a closed network where only the big players get to innovate and generate wealth. Of course, the open web will always remain, but possibly only for those rich enough to pay for the freedom and creativity it affords. That’s not the web I want to live on.

  12. I would be wary of anything free from those shysters. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and if they’re sucking up lower traffic areas in Africa, it may be because they’ve outstayed their welcome with their own people for a very shameful reason…

  13. This is not a ‘big score for mobile web consumers’ – it is anti-competitive and limits the ability of new entrants to gain users.

    Lowly capitalized entrepreneurs and innovators are going to be unable to strike similar deals with mobile operators (especially at this scale). They won’t gain traction. It is akin to a non-neutral Internet. Apps took off due to the iPhone significantly lower the transaction costs arising from negotiation with operators. This raises that bar.

  14. i’m not at all sure this is a good thing…for reasons people likely much smarter than me on this thread have already stated.

    foreign-held global monopolies don’t seem like an economic development engine for emerging economies. maybe i’ll be proven wrong.

  15. I think the biggest thing about this announcement is what Facebook presented to carriers at the Mobile Web Congress. *Paid* mobile Web usage rose after 0.fb.com was put up (and then pulled down) in the UK. I think this will probably carry over in many other parts of the world, and thats why its definitely a big deal.
    The biggest danger to me, is that people’s first introduction to the mobile web will be facebook. A company with poor track record for privacy sensitivity, and for listening to its users. It just gives facbeook too much power over the mobile world.

    For more, see what facebook planned with facebook zero at http://bit.ly/bWo7BS, starting at 9:00.

  16. Swedish African

    May 24, 2010 at 4:13 am

    We did this in Sweden in 2007 with the Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) Mobile service… Did not fly. Cultural differences with an economy of abundence.

  17. This also brings up the question of net neutrality. The ISPs will open their bandwidth to the highest bidder . The websites with the most cash can pay more and load their content faster. The small players can get hurt here. I We need some kind of legislation to be developed in parallel.

  18. I would counter some of the fears expressed here. Like Compuserve and AOL’s walled gardens in the early days, this stage will pass. 0.facebook adopters will get a taste of the possibilities and will find a way to get the whole package. As with MXit, this is a way to get more people at least a piece of the internet. Finally, recent announcements about privacy protection on the site are heading in the right direction. What Facebook must share with host governments should be watched too.


  19. IMHO Zero data rate is the holy grail of mHealth(and possibly other m’s) – the possibilities are quite staggering – I am amazed that no-one appears to have started using facebook zero for mHealth Hacks – If it was available in South Africa I’ll be shouting about this from the rooftops but alas –

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