India: Assessing Bharti Airtel’s ‘penny a day’ Facebook access

Facebook has introduced a “penny a day” access scheme in India in collaboration with national mobile carrier Bharti Airtel. The service is text-based and limited in functionality and messaging capability but importantly, in a market where smartphone ownership is growing but still niche, the service is open to all GSM handsets.

More details come from The Register:

The new service comes from Bharti Airtel and uses the USSD service, a little-known part of the GSM standard which provides text-menu interactivity more akin to Gopher than the web. But USSD is supported on all GSM handsets, which means Bharti Airtel can offer Facebook on any mobile phone for a rupee a day (a bit more than 1 UK penny or two US cents).

Interactivity is limited to status updates, “friend” requests and posting (text) on walls. The user is expected to have access to a PC for everything else, but Bharti Airtel does provide mobile access to the service.

The interesting part of the concept is how it could be used to promote access to information among mass market, ‘dumb’ phone users.

The USSD service is a more basic offering that the proposed Snaptu-based service which – as I mentioned last week – is a key initiative that the company is pushing as it continues to gain ground on Google Orkut, India’s largest social network by members (with circa 40 million to Facebook India’s 20 million).

The Snaptu access, which covers 80% of the world’s mobile phones, is different in allowing app-like access to sites and services. Facebook, Twitter and others developed Snaptu apps with Facebook going further still and acquiring the company earlier this year.

Back to the Bharti Airtel, Facebook penny access. While the deal is interesting it remains unclear what effect, if any, it will have on the company’s Indian market share.

With no access to graphics or gaming – two key features that attract and retain new users – the access is arguably too basic to attract existing Orkut users, though it remains to see if it is enough of a draw to attract new, non-social network users with non-smartphone devices.

Neat though the concept may be, Snaptu-based access for mass market devices is a more effective  and compelling service to grow Facebook’s user base as it seeks to continue its stellar growth in the Indian market.

The deal is likely more significant for Airtel as it enables PC users without smartphones to enjoy a reasonable level of Facebook usage on the go and at an affordable rate. Equally there is significant appeal for those in areas with poor mobile signal who will appreciate a less complicated, faster-loading Facebook experience, albeit with less functionality.

Ultimately, the tie-up is unlikely to be a silver bullet for the operator or Facebook, but it is yet another step towards providing greater access to information and services for  India’s huge (and potentially very lucrative) mass market audience.

See what I wrote about the initial Snaptu acquisition and its potential for Asia here, and how it continues to focus of enabling developing markets started by Facebook’s ‘Zero’ initiative.