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MWC 2013: Facebook to offer free Messenger for Android, iOS and feature phones through 18 carriers around the world

Facebook is offering free or discounted access to its Messenger App in partnership with 18 carriers around the globe. Will this lead to a further decline in SMS usage?
February 25, 2013
Facebook Messenger

Cross-platform instant messaging service are on the rise, and this has contributed to the decline in SMS use and revenue for carriers. But will Facebook’s announcement of free Messenger service through 18 carriers around the world be the proverbial nail in the coffin for SMS?

At the Mobile World Congress, Facebook has made an announcement that might just make a significant impact on how carriers see their messaging-related business models. In gist, Facebook is offering either free or discounted access to Messenger through 18 carriers in 14 countries — mostly in emerging markets.

Instant messaging apps are on the rise, after all. For instance, China’s WeChat has 300 million odd users. LINE has recently passed 100 million. Even regional-oriented providers like Kakao Talk have a big following at 70 million. Going global, WhatsApp has at least 100 million users. But Facebook’s potential would be greater, with almost a billion users worldwide (although this does not automatically translate to Messenger users).

In a statement, Facebook said this is being done in line with its efforts to improve access to its services. “Messaging on Facebook lets people connect with friends and contacts on the go, regardless of what device they are using. Three out of every four people on Facebook send a message on the platform each month, making messaging one of the most popular activities on Facebook.”

Access to the free or discounted Messenger service can be done from the Messenger app on iOS and Android. This will also work on feature-phones through the “Facebook for Every Phone” Java application, as well as through the mobile Facebook site. This will be available through the following carriers:

  • Europe: TMN in Portugal, Three in Ireland, Vivacom in Bulgaria, Backcell in Azerbaydzhan, Tre in Italy
  • Asia: Airtel and Reliance in India, Indosat, Smartfren, AXIS and XL Axiata in Indonesia, SMART in Philippines, DiGi in Malaysia, DTAC in Thailand
  • Africa and Middle East: Viva in Bahrain, STC in Saudi Arabia, Etisalat in Egypt.
  • Latin America: Oi in Brazil

The Next Web notes that Facebook has been making inroads into the mobile ecosystem with its Messenger app. For instance, the social network recently introduced free calling within North America. However, the free Messenger service is more basic, given that the company is targeting mostly emerging markets. These are mostly markets in which data is considered a premium service, and where subscribers would usually opt for basic calling and texting services rather than persistent data connections.

Facebook is also banking on its existing user-base, which in emerging markets mostly access through mobile devices. The promo will launch “in the coming months,” although Facebook has not specified whether this will be a limited offering or if carriers plan to monetize this service through other means like advertising.

This initiative echoes that of Google’s, with its FreeZone Powered by Google. That particular effort involves mobile web, though, while Facebook’s free offering applies to its mobile app, which provides a better user experience than a WAP site, which is what Google offers. Notably, Yahoo! also has partnerships with carriers for free access to content, mail and messenger through mobile apps.

Will free Messenger further lead to a decline in SMS use? This is foreseeable, yes. But this is limited by the fact that carrier access to the free service is limited to Facebook’s partners. But it will surely eat into carrier offerings like unlimited SMS bundles or even BlackBerry Messenger, which is a cheap and popular alternative to SMS in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.