Facebook’s Broken Free Basics in Nigeria

Facebook’s Broken Free Basics in Nigeria

Facebook runs the Free Basics which is an initiative through which it offers free Internet services to some selected websites including most Facebook products. In other words, when you visit the websites, your meter will not be running on your mobile devices. According to the company, it is a way to make Internet affordable. In Nigeria, that initiative partners with Airtel, a major telecommunication operator.

It is very hard to ascertain how that service has worked in Nigeria. By that I mean if people are making decisions to buy Airtel SIM cards for the ultimate access to the Free Basics. In Lagos and across Nigeria, I did not have that feeling. MTN has remained the largest network, with Glo coming far behind. Airtel is #3 and remains so even after striking the partnership with Facebook on Free Basics.

Besides Airtel, other telcos across Africa now support Free Basics. Facebook pays the mobile operators since the customers do not have to pay for the data. That means that Facebook is the paying customer. Facebook through its balloons and other tools provide the broadband services which the telcos “retail” free for the end-consumers to use to access the chosen websites. If Facebook does not pay the small fee for the operations, the telcos ideally will not bother.

Also, there is the possibility that some telcos can use that as a consumer acquisition strategy, getting customers to use their SIM cards, knowing well they will stick with them when they need to enter the open Internet, which has to be paid for.

The Problem with Airtel and Facebook Partnership

A major problem with Free Basics is that the chosen websites are largely not for productivity. While Wikipedia is a good website, the fact remains that if you are restricted on the site, even the site you have access is diminished. There is always a feeling that the other site is better.

Imagine a scenario where a student is chatting with a friend on Facebook via Free Basics, and the friend tells him that the professor has posted a homework available in the university portal. The student wants to access the school portal but Free Basics does not support that site. The option for the student is to buy credit to have access to the real open Internet. When that is done, the student can see the assignment. This experience will surely diminish the Free Basics before the student.

The implication is that the best way to run Free Basics is to partner with companies that understand how to offer Internet free, even if it means watching adverts, to do so. People watch the adverts to have access to the web. So, when they are on Free Basics, they access the available sites, but when they want to access the open web, they watch adverts to do so. The Facebook-Tizeti partnership should be anchored on that framework. But that is not what we are getting.

The Facebook-Tizeti partnership

Tizeti, which manages Wifi.com.ng and Flobyt, a free WI-FI  service, would have been a natural partner. It can offer end-to-end experience on totally free service for Free Basics website and the open Internet for users. That means, what Facebook supports get delivered and the other websites can be accessed by watching adverts. That was possible in the old Tizeti; not anymore.

Tizeti Network Limited is a fast growing Wireless Internet service provider in Lagos, Nigeria, delivering high-speed unlimited wi-fi Internet access to residential and business customers. Founded in 2012, the Company has established wi-fi networks all over Lagos. The Company was the first ISP to deliver unlimited internet using wide area wi-fi in Nigeria and is now offering its services all over Lagos and the South.

Yes, after Tizeti raised money from global investors, it pivoted from its old business model of offering free WI-FI services. Now, you need to pay to have access to its WI-FI services. Nonetheless, on this Express WI-FI, you can still access the Free Basics part free on its network. From Facebook and Tizeti press release:

Tizeti … announced a partnership to expand Express Wi-Fi by Facebook in Nigeria, …, this initiative supports Facebook’s and Tizeti’s shared goal of connecting more people to the internet in a cost-efficient way.

A fast and affordable public wi-fi hotspot service, Express Wi-Fi in Nigeria is focused in areas where people gather and work, including markets, cafes and public outdoor spaces. Using affordable internet through Tizeti’s wi-fi technology, anyone with a wi-fi capable device and the ability to receive a one-time SMS will be able to use Express Wi-Fi without switching SIM cards or having a data plan. People can connect through Express Wi-Fi on most Android and iOS phones, tablets, and laptops.

{…}

Our Express Wi-fi plans are affordable and range from N50 for 100MB to N2,000 for 10GB.

In addition, anyone connected to an Express Wi-Fi hotspot can access Facebook Flex and Free Basics, which offers people access to impactful local services, including health resources, education and business tools and more.

From the press release, you can get the Facebook Free Basics via this partnership. But if you need the open web, you have to pay. The cost of 10GB of data is N2,000 which is really cheap; 9Mobile would reduce your pocket by N7,000. Yet, it did not solve the pain point even though it has lowered the cost of broadband. A free win would have been if Facebook has pushed Tizeti to adopt its original free WI-FI service, supporting it with funding to make up any revenue from advertisements. That is when we will know great things will happen.

All Together

Free Internet has emerged as a stunt which entrepreneurs use to get free media. Once they start operations, they begin to charge customers. Most of them that promised free Internet are now charging customers. Of course, it is not an easy business model to run free WI-FI because it costs money to build the infrastructure. The Free Basics remains limited, because offering one part of Internet free and other parts paid will always create poor experiences for most people.

A company that can use advertising to support the cost of the open web will be a natural partner to this initiative. They can cap the maximum data usage for the open web while Free Basics remains unlimited to the chosen websites. That way, people will know that even though I do not have money, I can be in Free Basics contents, and if something triggers me to go to the open web, I can watch ads and access the contents while making sure that I do not exceed my available data allocation. Not doing that weakens Facebook vision and India was right to have banned it outright: it is a distortion of the mind.

That inability to find a way to get people to the open web remains the weakest link of this initiative. I will never encourage a family member to use such a service because it rewires the brain on the possibilities of the web. Facebook can fix this with its money. Yet, I respect that the firm has to execute its business model on its own terms.


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