By using the long-forgotten USSD wireless data technology, Orange is enabling Facebook access throughout its African networks on even the most basic of mobile phones. Meanwhile, the popularity of Facebook apps continues to rise. Guy Daniels reports.
What do you do if there aren’t enough smartphones in developing nations? Well, you encourage manufacturers to create low cost smart-ish phones, ideally in the sub-$200 category (watch out for news at Mobile World Congress from at least two major operators…). But you also try and get around the problem by thinking laterally, which is what Orange has done in Africa.
The operator has today revealed that it is using USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) – a low-bandwidth data service that is accessible from the simplest of 2G phones – to give customers mobile access to Facebook. The service is only available in Africa, across the Orange footprint in the continent, and the telco claims it is a first. Because USSD is a messaging protocol, it doesn’t require internet access or expensive data plans, it works rather like texting, albeit with real-time connectivity.
In fact, it’s most commonly used to transmit prepaid billing information and callback services. It’s so basic that most people won’t have heard of it, and even those of us who were covering the industry when 2G was first introduced will probably only have the faintest recollection of the dusty old acronym.
Orange trialled the technology for Facebook connections when it offered the service to Mobinil customers in Egypt at the end of last year, and which saw 350,000 customers using it in the first month. Today it extends the service to Orange Côte d'Ivoire and will add more countries during the year. Xavier Perret, VP of strategic partnerships at Orange, expects that over one million customers will use the service in the first year:
“Social networks such as Facebook have completely changed how people stay in contact with their family and friends, and it’s important that our customers, regardless of the phone they have, are able to access and participate in these services.
We feel that it is our role to help our customers enjoy a digitally rich, connected life, and services such as Facebook via USSD this make that possible for even more of our customers.”
To use the service, customers simply type a specific code into their phone to open a ‘Facebook via USSD’ session and enter a PIN code to access the service securely. If the customer is using the service for the first time, they will have to register by providing their Facebook login and password and create a new PIN code. There are four types of pricing available: per session (10 to 20 minutes), daily, weekly and monthly. Pricing is country specific.
It’s not a world first though, at least one other operator is already offering a similar service. Back in May 2011, Bharti Airtel launched a USSD service in India, called ‘Facebook by Fonetwish’, which it claimed as a first. It charged 1 rupee per day for access. It was followed in July by a similar service in India from Tata Docomo, which enabled connection to both Facebook and Twitter.
Meanwhile, Facebook execs are getting into the IPO spirit by singing the praises of mobile access to the service. In a blog entry yesterday, Vladimir Fedorov, an engineer on Facebook’s Platform Team, said “there should be an app for everyone on Facebook”, revealing that more than 60 new timeline apps went live last month, broadening the appeal of the social media service beyond music, news and videos.
He cites flavour-of-the-month Pinterest (f*** yeah!), fashion sites Pose and Fab, and the Artfinder site as good examples. Foodspotting, a food finding and sharing app, has seen a threefold increase in number of visits by helping people share the dishes they want, try and ate with friends on Facebook, and rival site Foodily has reported a fourfold increase:
“These apps have a few things in common. They’re built around something people care about and identify with, they enable people to share things they want their friends to see, and they provide easy ways to control the social experience.”
But it’s the entertainment apps that are still the most popular. Fedorov says music apps like Spotify, Songza and Deezer are seeing large increases in sharing and music discovery. He says users have shared more than 5 billion songs through these apps.
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