Telenor in collaboration with Facebook recently launched an initiative called ‘internet.org’ in Pakistan. Internet.org is a global programme by Facebook which aims to provide affordable or free access to selected websites in less developed countries. Prior to coming to Pakistan, it was launched in 12 countries including Bangladesh, Columbia, India, Indonesia and Zambia.
According to Irfan Wahab Khan, Deputy CEO and CMO, Telenor, internet.org is in line with Telenor Pakistan’s vision of providing ‘Internet for All’. Other initiatives include introducing affordable 3G-enabled handsets, launching a local app store called Apportunity and providing subsidised data service rates. Khan adds that this collaboration was a “natural fit to their goal of digitally connecting every citizen.”
With internet.org, which can be accessed either by visiting the site using a Telenor SIM or by downloading the app (available on Android Play), Telenor customers will benefit from free access to 17 websites including AccuWeather, BabyCenter & MAMA, BBC, Bing, ESPN Cricinfo, Facebook, ilmkidunya, Malaria No More, Messenger, OLX, Telenor WAP Mobile Portal, UNICEF Facts for Life and Wikipedia.
Talking about the target audience, Khan says they are “non-internet mobile users”, who either cannot afford an internet connection or don’t know what to do online – precisely the reason why, adds Khan, the service is available on all internet-enabled handsets, and not just high-end devices. A major chunk of the audience is expected to come from the rural areas, where internet penetration is significantly low. The list of free websites aim to provide something for every user – current affairs, health-related news, sports and basic retail websites being a few and according to Khan they will gradually add more useful websites.
Although the ad campaign is 360 (Creative agency: Adcom) and includes TV, digital marketing, on-ground activations, outdoor, print and radio, the focus is on TVCs and activations, because their target audience is not online. Khan says that “apart from our TVC which is functional in nature, we plan to do on-ground awareness activities in small towns and villages and these will include integrating our content in stage shows we will be sponsoring. Our audience is mainly SEC C and D, so we need to explicitly explain the product and break down the usage for them.”
According to Khan the initial uptake has been quite successful with about 150,000 subscribers visiting internet.org within the first week of launch – a number that has now doubled.
The challenge the company will have to address is the fact that most internet savvy users do not favour the concept of internet.org, mainly because they believe it violates ‘net neutrality’. Simply put, net neutrality advocates equal treatment for all websites – big or small – and that no website should be given special preference. For example, providing free access to Facebook, and not Twitter, gives the former an unfair advantage. Others also argue that internet.org provides a tunnelled version of the internet – by giving access to selected websites. Telenor has countered this criticism by stating that it is giving users a choice – to use full but paid services, or go for limited but free access.
In Khan’s opinion, “Net neutrality is more of an intellectual discussion. Our audiences are ordinary Pakistanis who will greatly benefit from internet.org. We are not blocking any content and we are actively trying to draw more people to the internet. Based on our experience, many people who initially only use limited, text-centric services, gradually move up and start buying inexpensive data bundles.”
Talking about other operators coming on board, Khan sees this as welcome competition. “We do not have any exclusive deal with Facebook, and multiple operators are providing the service in other markets. Ultimately, there is a wider purpose to it – to bring as many people online as possible.”