Google has a history of trying to enable Internet access, dating all the way back to 2005 when the company announced it planned to bring free municipal Wi-Fi service to Mountain View, California. Since then, it has rolled out its ambitious Google Fiber project in Kansas City, and as of last week, taken the wraps off Google Free Zone, a new initiative that enables mobile users with Internet-capable mobile phones but no data service to access Google's Web search, Gmail, and Google+ social networking for free. The service is available now on a single operator in the Philippines (Globe Telecom via libre.ph), and Google has plans to introduce it in additional countries.
What's Google's motivation here? Is it really about bringing the power and utility of the Internet to (potentially) hundreds of millions of people in emerging markets at no charge? Or is it an effort to establish Google as the gateway for those users' first mobile Internet experiences, potentially establishing a brand loyalty that could last for years?
Or is it both?
How Google Free Zone works
Google Free Zone does have an unfortunate name -- but, no, it doesn't represent a zone completely devoid of Google. Rather, Google Free Zone offers access to Gmail, Google+, and Google Web search from Internet-capable phones even if users don't have mobile data service. Notice that doesn't say smartphones: Although Google Free Zone seems to work reasonably well with smartphones, it's designed for the default browsers in less-expensive feature phones. That means the experience isn't as rich or full-featured as what can be done in smartphone apps and browsers, but for emerging markets, that's just fine. Over half the U.S. market might be packing smartphones, but feature phones are still the dominant mobile device in emerging economies, and are likely to remain so for some time. Google isn't pitching this at mature mobile markets: It's aimed squarely at areas where Internet access is uncommon or expensive.
Using Google Free Zone requires a Google account (they're free), and the service doesn't support third-party feature phone Web browsers like Bolt and QQ. (Some reports have Opera Mini working with Google Free Zone, which is the default browser on some feature phones.) Generally, Free Zone should work on most Internet-capable feature phones released in 2006 and later; older devices won't recognize the Free Zone security certificates. Users will need to enable cookies in their default browser, and can apparently cannot use Google's two-factor authentication on Gmail accounts.
Smartphone users can use Google Free Zone too, but will probably need to change Access Point Name (APN) settings so they aren't charged for data use. (Globe has posted instructions. Not all smartphones can change APNs, however.) Smartphone users will also want to turn off syncing and other non-Free Zone services that would still incur data charges.
Once connected, Free Zone users can access stripped-down versions of Gmail, Google+, and Google Web search for free. Any amount of data access to these Google services is free of charge; however, if users navigate away from these primary Google services, they will be prompted to sign up for mobile data service or warned about potential charges.
There is a single, notable exception. Users can load the first page of Web sites that turn up in search results. Trying to follow links from those sites will bring up promotions or warnings about being charged for data services, but users will be able to get a look at things that turn up in their Web search results for free.
Who's paying for all this?
Although Free Zone is limited solely to three Google services, Google Free Zone does come across as a serious move to bring basic free mobile Internet capability to people who don't have it. At that level, it's a callback to Google's "don't be evil" mantra -- an example of the company putting its money and resources behind an altruistic, community good. Bring the Internet to people now, for free, and maybe make a positive difference.
But Google Free Zone may not be is all that altruistic. Google representatives we contacted have explicitly declined to comment on Free Zone's revenue model, save to note that Free Zone is not serving mobile ads to users. Since the vast majority of Google revenue comes from serving ads, we can assume Google is foregoing the easiest way to monetize the Free Zone service.
It's also not clear how long Free Zone will actually be free. Philippine mobile operator Globe says the service is a "promo" and will be free to all their subscribers through March 31, 2013. Neither Google nor Globe have responded to questions about what happens to Free Zone after that date. Google does note Free Zone users will be "notified about any changes to Free Zone's pricing structure."
Right now Globe is the only operator offering Free Zone. Only time will tell whether Free Zone is positioned as a limited-time "promo" or a free service without an expiration when it becomes available on other carriers.
If Free Zone is offered as a promotional service by mobile operators, they probably few it as a value-added feature they're willing to support because it encourages their subscribers use mobile data services. Just like developed markets, mobile operators in emerging economies see higher profit margins from mobile data services than from simple voice plans.
However, if Free Zone is real -- offered for free with no strings for the foreseeable future -- mobile operators may not be as keen to support it. Sure, they'll undoubtedly see an uptick in subscribers adding data to their devices, but they'll also be footing the bill for folks happy to get by on Free Zone services. In that case, Google may find it has to subsidize (or partially subsidize) Free Zone to convince operators to carry it. Or perhaps other carriers will offer Free Zone with mobile ads, and work out an ad-revenue-sharing arrangement with Google. Again, Google has not commented on possible revenue models for Free Zone.
What does Google get out of it?
At face value, Google Free Zone is a sincere effort to bring more people onto the Internet and close the gap between those who do and do not have access to Internet technology and communication in their lives. As Google product manager Abdel Karim Mardini told Reuters, Google Free Zone is "aimed at the next billion users of the Internet, many of whom will be in emerging markets and encounter the Internet first on a mobile phone, without ever owning a PC."
It's also an effort to make sure those users' first taste of the Internet is mediated by Google, and potentially instill a brand loyalty that will be valuable to Google over the long term. In a few years' time, users who came to the Internet via Google Free Zone may not consider something like an iPhone, because familiar Google services may not be easily available. An Android-based phone may be much more appealing -- after all, these users will already have Google accounts, Gmail addresses, and presences on Google+.
All the Google accounts that might be generated by Free Zone are valuable to Google. Not only do they boost subscriber numbers for Google services, but they provide valuable data to Google in the form of search queries, email messages to scan and analyze, and social relationships. Google may not be serving up mobile ads to Free Zone customers (for now, anyway), but the company will undoubtedly use aggregate data from Google Free Zone users to refine its local search offerings, Google+ services, and mobile ads served to non-Free Zone users on the same carrier or in the same area. Heck, if Google is collecting location information from Free Zone users, it might even use the data to refine its mapping and location services.
Google Free Zone is also another front in Google's long-term battle with Facebook. With over a billion users, Facebook and its much-vaunted social graph are one of the major players in online identity. Google deeply wants to be the dominant arbiter of online identity; however, Facebook is way out in front of Google in emerging economies thanks to Facebook Zero, a lightweight, text-only version of its core social networking capabilities designed for feature phones that launched all the way back in 2010. Facebook Zero is only offered through selected mobile operators, but basic functions are available without data fees: Users can message their friends, expand their social networks, keep up with status updates, invite people to join via SMS, and accomplish many of the things that make Facebook so addictive for people. Following links out of Facebook will incur data charges (and, on some providers at least, so will downloading images from Facebook), but basic functions are available for free.
When contacted, Facebook representatives declined to say whether Facebook is subsidizing Facebook Zero on mobile operators. However, some industry watchers have speculated that Facebook is not paying mobile operators to carry Facebook Zero, or working revenue splits with them. Instead, mobile operators may view offering free, basic access to Facebook as a way to encourage mobile users to upgrade to buy pricier, more-capable phones and subscribe to data services. Facebook Zero even makes an attractive freemium offering in mature markets -- Canada's Wind Mobile got on board last year.
First one's free…
Free Zone could be an instance where Google's history of offering free services for the broader good of the Internet align with market forces and Google's long-term business goals:
- Users with limited income (often on prepaid plans) get improved access to email, search, and the Internet;
- Mobile operators encourage data use and gradually generate more revenue per subscriber;
- Google becomes the gateway to the Internet for many new users, encouraging brand loyalty and helping them compete with Facebook.
It remains to be seen whether Google can pull it off, though. Right now, Free Zone is available on a single carrier in the Philippines, although Google says the service will launch in other countries. Meanwhile, Facebook Zero launched back in 2010 with over 50 mobile operators in 45 markets on board. That's a lot of ground for Google to make up.
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