Facebook sends operators a friend request at the TM Forum

At the recent TM Forum in Nice, Facebook used the opportunity to reach out to operators to try and persuade them to open their hearts and minds.

Historically the relationship between Facebook and mobile operators has been a little… frosty. Some love the social network site, some simply can’t stand it. It’s a bit like Marmite here in the UK.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that MIR favourite, Amdocs, were on site at the TM Forum. As one of the key suppliers to the global operator industry, I’ve been tracking the offerings and performance of Amdocs for years now.

Indeed it’s often positively depressing (in a good way!) listening to the forward thinking teams from Amdocs describe their new products and services knowing that most things are at least a minimum of 6 months away from hitting the market with a live operator. I’m not that patient!

Yifat KafkafiI’m delighted that Amdocs’ own Yifat Kafkafi (pictured left) was able to write up the Facebook session from TM Forum for us here on MIR. It makes for interesting reading, especially around the their rather contentious ‘internet.org’ plans.

Over to Yifat.

 

 

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“The more we connect, the better it gets,” was Markku Mäkeläinen’s message to telecom operators as Facebook’s Director of Global Operator Partnerships announced that the social media giant has joined the telecom industry association TM Forum.

In his keynote at TM Forum’s annual event in Nice, Mäkeläinen explained that Facebook intends to deepen its collaboration with telecom operators in its push to expand its internet.org initiative:

“We want to create industry-based practices to scale this globally. We are looking forward to contributing to best practices, APIs and even infrastructure.”

While the Internet’s growth rate is slowing down, through working together with telecom operators, Facebook believes the digital divide can be bridged to connect the 4 billion who are not yet online, and who represent two-thirds of the world population. Internet.org is the Facebook-sponsored project to connect the world to the Internet by providing some basic services for free – an initiative which is now available across 11 countries.

“The Internet belongs to everyone; it should be accessible to everyone,” noted Mäkeläinen, before explaining Facebook’s plans to overcome the three primary barriers to connecting the world’s unconnected.

The first (and perhaps the most obvious) barrier is infrastructure. By Facebook’s calculations, only 48.7% of the global population live in areas with 3G access, but 2G access encompasses 91.7% of the population. Mäkeläinen admitted that the remaining 10% would be extremely challenging to connect, explaining that Facebook is working on a solution in the form of Aquila – an experimental project which involves building a fleet of solar-powered drones which can stay in the air for three months and provide Internet access.

Another (less obvious) barrier is relevance and awareness. There is a lack of content available in many local languages which reduces the relevance of Internet services to potential users’ daily life.

Facebook believes a minimum of 100,000 online articles must be available in any particular language for its speakers to view the Internet as a relevant too, and currently, only 52 languages representing 53% of the world’s population meet that criteria. According to Mäkeläinen, in order to reach 80% of the population, a total of 92 languages would each need to have 100,000 online articles.

Facebook’s research shows that most unconnected users in emerging markets are also simply not aware of the Internet – for example, 69% of non-Internet users in India and 50% in Ghana. And in many markets, noted Mäkeläinen, Facebook actually has bigger brand awareness than the Internet, and can be a significant factor in getting people online: “Facebook in many markets is the single biggest driver for users to buy a data plan.”

Which brings us to barrier number three: Affordability, with many potential users unable to afford the cost of devices, connectivity access and related taxes. To put this in perspective, Africa is one of the fastest growing areas for Internet, but 65% of people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $2 a day.
So how much data does a person need?

At 500 MB a month, only 34% of the world’s population can afford mobile Internet access at current prices. If access could be restricted to 250 MB, then 50% could afford it. Bring this down to 100 MB and 80% could then afford Internet access. Internet.org is therefore developing lightweight, data-efficient and mostly text-based services, and offering free content and services for news, job skills, health, education and employment.

Facebook firmly believes that people over time will start to pay for Internet access once they understand the value: by getting a feel for what’s available, for free. And here’s where Facebook say service providers will benefit from the internet.org initiative.

According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year internet.org will help service providers attract new subscribers by opening up the world of data to people who have never experienced the Internet:

“We’re looking to create a model that’s profitable for operators, that is on perpetually as more people get exposed to Internet, and more people are upgrading to paid data than will be using free services.”

But it still remains to be seen whether that is enough reason for mobile service providers to accept Facebook’s friend request.

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Thank you Yifat for taking the time to write this! I do think it’s in the interests of operators to support internet.org.

Now then, here’s a bit of background on Yifat: Yifat is a business development and presales manager for Amdocs Big Data Analytics. She has over 10 years of communications industry experience in marketing, strategy and sales. You can follow Yifat on twitter at @yifatkafkafi.

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