Facebook’s internet.org “will have to change its model to be scalable”, according to Nathan Eagle, founder of a rival application designed to deliver free internet to emerging markets.
mCent, which launched over a year ago, hit more than 30 million subscribers in April, and works by inviting users to engage with sponsored apps in order to gain access to the wider internet, running “as a customer utility”.
Once users build up enough “airtime” through these engagements, they can “download any app, access any website or watch any video”, Eagle told Mobile World Live in an interview.
Its approach differs wildly to Facebook. While internet.org offers access to a select few websites, mCent is more of an open platform. It also “pays tens of millions of dollars to buy data capacity from operators”, an investment that internet.org has so far veered away from.
“10x” the size of internet.org
Owned by start-up Jana, and funded privately, the benefits of mCent making such investment is beginning to show.
Eagle (pictured) claims mCent integrates with 311 operators across 93 different countries, soundly trumping Facebook’s partnerships with “more than a dozen mobile operators across 17 countries”, which it revealed in July.
“We are 10x the size of internet.org because we are bulk buying internet from the operators, and we are not giving people access to something limited to only Facebook and Wikipedia,” he said. “And as we grow, our costs continue to increase. I definitely wouldn’t rule out more financing in the future.”
Facebook’s “walled garden” approach has come under fire in some countries, with many global digital rights groups arguing the scheme goes against net neutrality as it only provides a limited number of online services.
Eagle says Facebook’s limited free internet approach simply comes down to the fact that “they don’t want to pay the operators any money”.
It’s very simple,” he said. “If they don’t pay the operators it’s difficult to scale and they aren’t going to front that cost. They have enough CAPEX to offset as it is.”
Facebook “needs to gamble”
However, despite its early struggles, Eagle refused to write off internet.org, stating it “would be a mistake to dismiss them”.
“Ultimately, they’ll need to take a gamble and evolve their model. They have a much larger team and much larger resources than us so they can afford to do that.”
Of course, internet.org is not only designed to provide an app for “basic internet services”. Facebook’s initiative has wider goals to provide underlying internet connectivity to markets that have limited or no internet access and it recently announced its Aquila drone was now ready for testing.
Despite the early success and increasing adoption of mCent, Eagle confirmed the company “has no plans at all” to follow a similar path in the future.
“The only thing our company does is offset the cost of data. We don’t and will not do anything around balloons, drones or lasers,” he said.
“internet.org gives access to a small sliver of the internet, we’re providing access to the whole of it.”