Google ‘Free Zone’ and Facebook ‘Zero’: Products Targeting Developing Populations


Internet access and Internet freedom in developing nations are two huge and ongoing challenges for service providers.  Google and Facebook–two major players in many people’s daily search and social activities–developed solutions of their own with the hope that there would be mass adoption leading to exponential growth.  But, as you’ll read, for every new solution there is an additional unforeseen challenge to overcome.



Google ‘Free Zone’

According to Google, ‘Free Zone’ is “a product that allows users to access Google+, Gmail, and Google Search on their mobile phone without incurring data charges.” ‘Free Zone’ is currently available in the Philippines via Globe Telecom at—all you need is a Google account to sign up.  “With the new mobile Internet promo, Globe is initially offering access to around 30 million Globe Prepaid and TM subscribers nationwide until March 31, 2013,” according to The Next Web.  While Google does plan on introducing the service offering to additional countries, it seems that the Philippines was chosen as the initial market due to the fact that 1) Google built the software and Globe became the first operator to make it work on its network, 2) data is expensive, and 3) there is a high number of mobile users with basic Internet-enabled devices.

What’s in it for the user?  Truly free access to the Internet via “” or another local access hub.  What’s in it for Google (and Facebook)?  The growth of the next billion Internet users, the opening up of new business opportunities, improved analytics snapshots of developing areas, a likely increase in the value of stock prices and immense international political power.

The challenge with this system in the future will likely be Google’s negotiation prowess with other international telecom operators to allow Google ‘Free Zone’ to operate.



Facebook ‘Zero’

Similar to Google, Facebook launched “a text-only version of the Facebook service that carriers can offer to their subscribers at no charge.”  Facebook ‘Zero’ ( is a lightweight version of the mobile site ( that “omits data intensive applications like photos,” says Facebook spokesperson Brandee Barker.  ‘Zero’ refers to the fact that this mobile platform has a zero rating by telecom companies.  Having a zero rating means that certain types of data do not count against the user’s monthly data cap or prepaid quota.  Thus the user can then utilize a WAP protocol to access sites tailored for it—such as Facebook’s ‘’ if you’re in the right country and you have a WAP-enabled feature phone (non-smart phone).  The site is just text, but includes all the status update notifications available on the desktop or app versions.

So, after launching ‘Zero’ with a number of African mobile carriers in 2010, Facebook was able to add a substantial number of new users within those 18 months thanks to the free factor and the ease of use on basic phones.  In fact one blog states that in 2010, there was a 114% increase in Africa (within 18 months) on average.  The same blog states, as of December 2011, a total of 37+ million Facebook users had been added in Africa.  These may sound like insane increases, but taken into perspective, Facebook’s mobile outreach is still not necessarily being mass adopted.

For example, one blog states that Nigeria saw a “154% increase to 4,369,740” Facebook users (out of a population of 170,123,740 (July 2012 est.)), Ghana saw an “85% increase to 1,146,560” Facebook users (out of a population of 24,652,402 (July 2012 est.), and Kenya saw a “50% increase to 1,298,560” Facebook users (out of a population of 43,013,341 (July 2012 est.)).

The statistics on Kenya are particularly interesting because it is estimated that 99% of the Kenyan population has access to the Internet on their mobile device.  When you do the math, approximately just 3% of Kenyans were utilizing the free Facebook service at the time.  The number of mobile subscribers accessing the Internet through Telkom Kenya’s Orange network rose by 2.4 per cent (from 674,255 subscribers – accounting for 8.8 per cent of the overall market share – in June 2012, to 948,847 subscribers, accounting for 11.2 per cent of the market) during the period between July and September 2012.  So, there was roughly 8,471,848 mobile data subscribers out of the Kenyan population of 43,013,341 (July 2012 est.).

That means 99% of the Kenyan population has mobile friendly phones, but only 20% of them subscribe to data packages.  If ‘Zero’ is free to access, why aren’t there more Kenyan Facebook subscribers?  Quite the riddle, if I do say so myself.


Unforeseen Challenges for Both ‘Free Zone’ and ‘Zero’

The answer to why there aren’t more users actually may be simple.  For example, many people in rural areas still see Facebook access as “a luxury,” limited by a number of factors that first-world people don’t consider:

- There may be a lack of electricity at home to charge a phone and public charging areas may be limited or may cost money.

- It may be too difficult take and upload a profile photo, due to a lack of a camera, or lack of a working mobile phone camera, or lack of a data plan to upload the image even if a person took a photo on the mobile phone. (‘Zero’ is a text only version anyway, but not everyone wants a solely ‘Zero’-friendly profile.)

- There is a cost at Internet cafes to not only use the Internet, but also to scan/upload a photo and to create an email.

- A person may have travel to town to use the Internet and will need to pay for a ride on a bicycle, motorcycle, or matatu.

- But perhaps most important: using the Internet for 30 minutes costs the same as feeding maize porridge to a family for several days.

The simple cost/benefit analysis by average Kenyans may prove that Internet access just isn’t what they should spend their money on right now.  For a much more detailed explanation of the difficulties rural Kenyans have with Internet access, you’ve got to read this article here.  So interesting and with lots of first person quotes from actual Kenyans.


So, is Mobile Web Useless in Developing Countries?

This is debatable, but it is a fact that from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe many countries face a lack of Internet infrastructure, a lack of Internet freedom, restrictions on wi-fi, low-bandwidth capabilities and expensive access costs.  So, naturally, promoting mobile web–with access to free major sites–is actually a huge plus.

Mobile web may not be useless, but according to Vision Mobile, approximately 73% of the world’s mobile phones are not smart phones.  And, if users are able to afford access to a mobile phone, one blog states that “in countries in the developing world, the average monthly spend on mobile connectivity, which is often just voice and text, is 8-12% of the average take-home pay of a cell phone user.”  That’s rather significant.

All is not bleak, however.  There’s a ton that we can do to follow in these giant’s footsteps and improve upon their solutions to tough mobile web technology implementation and outreach in developing nations.  Afterall, infrastructure will likely continue to evolve over time leading to decreased costs and increased accessibility.

That leads me to my list of optimistic suggestions below.


What We Can Do to Follow in the Footsteps of ‘Free Zone’ and ‘Zero’

1.      Be aware that smart phones, wireless data packages, and wi-fi are still out of reach for many across the globe.

2.      Develop access for every type of phone.  Here’s a great chart outlining Facebook’s strategy to conquer the developing world through partnerships, acquisitions, and product rollouts: [insert chart and credit source]

3.      Incorporate partnerships with companies that provide technical aspects on mobile phones.  One example is Fonetwish.  “Fonetwish uses a little-known protocol common to nine out of 10 phones on the planet, called USSD, to create a text-based interface for sites such as Facbook,” states one blog.  In fact, Orange, one of the leading mobile carriers in Africa, rolled out Facebook by Fonetwish on a trial basis to 350,000 users in Egypt at the end of 2011.

4.      Remember that not every country can use the same business model.  Mexico is the one developing country, out of the top 10 countries with the most Facebook users, where none of the carriers have agreed to offer Facebook ‘Zero’.  Instead, Facebook offers “Facebook for Every Phone, a version installed on SIM cards that works on around 80 percent of phones,” states one Gizmodo blogger.

5.      Design and build apps to be effective in low-bandwidth situations.  Consider using low-tech solutions such as WAP, SMS and other technologies.

6.      Design websites and apps that are fast loading and don’t use much data to browse.  Limit the amount of graphics, images, and videos to a need-to-know basis.   Having an all text site may seem overtly simple, but may be very effective at reaching a particular population.

7.      Promote important and useful information on the front page of your website or app.  News, weather, health information, crop or livestock prices, blogs written by local people, etc.

8.      Host workshop days to train locals how to build mobile apps that serve their particular needs.  By training locals to code simple web services, the entrepreneurial spirit may catch on and evolve into ideas and services that foreigners have not considered.

9.      Deliver content in the local language.  Larger services may be able to automate this process better in the future by geo-targeting regions and auto-translating pages into a list of local languages.

10.   Fund studies to demonstrate the need for expanded telecom investment and communications outreach into developing areas.  Make a point that all solutions must be affordable and sustainable.

11.   Consider if offering ‘zero data’ apps and services.  This, however, may bring about a larger cost of charges incurred for data usage.  For a great list of some extra complexities to the model to consider, check out this blog here.

12.   Be sure that websites can be accessed from USSD enabled devices.

13.   Invest in UX testing at the local level.


What are your thoughts on all this?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.


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Thank you to Rob Bole for his contributions to this post.

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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