The Alternative To Facebook Free Basics: Time-Based Internet Access – Forbes
The problem: even when the appropriate network infrastructures are in place and all the other barriers, like the lack of digital skills, are lifted, people in developing countries often cannot afford to access the Internet full time. It’s simply too expensive. This means that billions of people are excluded from the many benefits of connectivity, with no access to the knowledge and services other human beings, in richer countries, are now taking for granted.
Facebook offered its own solution: Free Basics, a selection of apps and services which users can access at no cost, thanks to a number of deals that the American companies is inking with local mobile-phone operators.
The program is quietly expanding and is now available in 47 nations, but remains controversial. Giving users the opportunity to access only to a subset of websites could configure as a violation of net neutrality principles and create first and second class netizens, critics say. India and Egypt chose to opt-out.
Even the gratuity of the initiative stirred doubts: as someone famously noted, “if you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”.
A different take on the same subject could be allowing people to pay limited sums for small chunks of Internet access. Say you just need to read your emails and browse the news? Tap into your smartphone credit balance and surf the Web for a set amount of time, ranging from as short as a minute to as long as a month, depending on your needs and on how much you are willing to pay.
The technology that makes it possible is already available and is currently being tested in a two selected markets by Finnish telecommunication software company Comptel, together with a couple of mobile phone operators.
“The basic idea is that you download an app that provides you with a very, very simple intuitive way of buying connectivity, time-based increments. Rather than talking megabytes, we talk about minutes. It’s like having a wallet full of money, and then you’re regulating how you spend that money,” Comptel’s CEO Juhani Intikka tells me.
“It sounds very simple, but it is actually important for people because they don’t want to have negative surprises, and they don’t want to run out of credit. They want to feel they are in control.”
Finnish operator Dana and Bangladeshi mobile operator Robi Axiata are the two carriers currently trialing the service. Finland, of course, can hardly be seen as an emerging country, but is Comptel’s home market and was chosen because it could provide useful feedback in a well-known environment.
Not to mention the fact that, with the percentage of cash-strapped population in the West constantly on the rise, the white-label, time-based solution, codenamed FWD, could soon find its way in more mature markets as well.
So far, customers seem to appreciate the new option, spending more than they used to and generating additional revenue for the operators.
“In Asia, we created over twice their amount of revenue per user buying connectivity with our app compared to the normal user. We made a +130% impact on the ARPU,” Intikka says. The app also tracks the users’ surfing habits (how long they connect, during which part of the day, accessing what kind of content), allowing the operators to price mobile data accordingly. They could offer, for instance, Christmas deals, or make connectivity more expensive during peak usage times.
Will this kind of flexible, time-based approach win the customers’ minds and become mainstream, in emerging markets, at least? It’s probably too early to say at the moment. Compared to Free Basics, it certainly offers the advantage of not limiting the kind of content users can access.
On the other hand, unlike the competitor, it doesn’t come free, and its “dynamic airline pricing” model could be confusing for some, or even scare people away if they feel they are being ripped off by the operators, with price surging up when connectivity is needed the most.