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Facebook Partners With Airtel to Bring More Internet (And Facebook) to Africa

Facebook is getting deeper into Africa.

Robyn Gwilt/ Shutterstock

Facebook is pushing further into Africa on its quest to bring the world Internet access — and find its next billion users.

The social network announced a partnership with Airtel on Tuesday to bring Facebook’s Free Basics app to 17 African countries by March, nine of which will be entirely new territories for the service. (Facebook and Airtel already partner within six countries, and two others have Free Basics, but through a separate provider.)

Free Basics is part of Facebook’s initiative to bring Internet connectivity to everyone around the world. The app provides a glimpse into the Internet by offering a collection of free services like Wikipedia and, yep, Facebook, that people can use without accruing any data charges.

The deal is yet another step forward for Facebook in its effort to reach users in emerging markets like Africa and India. The company is essentially laying the groundwork for future business. People can’t access Facebook without the Internet, after all, and Facebook can’t make money from people who don’t have Facebook accounts. It opened its first sales office in Africa earlier this year, and it’s trying to figure out how to show the users in those markets — people with crummy Wi-Fi signals and nonexistent data plans — better and more expensive ads.

Partnering with Airtel means the social network gets a free ride into more countries in Africa. Facebook doesn’t pay operators for these partnerships, which means the operators actually provide users with the free data. In exchange, operators hope that people who get a taste of the Internet through Facebook’s Free Basics app will become full-time customers.

It’s a strategy Facebook has used to bring Internet access to more than a dozen countries in the past year. Facebook gets more people online, collects some new users in the process, and operators (like Airtel) get new customers.

It seems, on paper, like a win-win-win, but the process hasn’t been as smooth as you might think. Both Airtel and Facebook have experienced backlash in India for offering portions of the Internet, not the entire Internet, for free. Critics claim the strategy violates net neutrality, that idea that everything on the Internet should be treated equally.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spoken out on multiple occasions to defend and the company’s Free Basics app, most recently on a trip to India last month.

Those complaints clearly haven’t stalled Facebook’s efforts. By early next year, the Free Basics app will be free to download in more than 25 countries.

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