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Facebook Snuck Into the World of Basic Cell Phones And Took Over

How Facebook is reaching those without smart phones

Facebook Zero works on all these phones. (Sean Salmon)

There are nearly more cell phones on the planet than there are people, and about three-quarters of those phones are not smart. They don’t have data plans, nor are they connected to the web. But that isn’t stopping Facebook from trying to reach those people. In fact, they’ve developed something called “Facebook Zero”—a Facebook without fancy images or links. It’s just text.

And it worked. In 18 months, the number of people in Africa on Facebook grew by 114%. Quartz reports:

The trick is that Facebook Zero is free, benefiting from what’s known as zero rating by the phone companies. Accessing it doesn’t rack up any data fees, which are a big deal in emerging markets, where almost everyone is on a prepaid plan. (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, says Nathan Eagle, CEO of mobile payments company Jana.)

How it’s free is a bit of a mystery, apparently, but it is. Quartz spoke with Nathan Eagle, “CEO of mobile payments company Jana”:

“The fact is that Facebook has made a compelling argument to operators, which is ‘You should give Facebook away for free,’” says Eagle. “I don’t know how Facebook is making that case, but if I were Facebook, the argument I’d make is that Facebook is one of the most addictive things on the internet. If you have someone try out Facebook for the first time, it might lead them to want to try the rest of the web, and a lot of these other services they can charge for.”

When Facebook Zero first came out, the tech blogs skimmed over it. Setting up doesn’t require much, users just have to go to from their mobile device.

The Quartz story tracks the growth of Facebook Zero and the impact it might have on the future of mobile technology, concluding that if the company play its cards right, Facebook Zero could be the thing that “gives Facebook, in a way that not even Google has accomplished, the chance to become the world’s homepage.”

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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