This company offers free mobile Internet to 40 million people worldwide

When Facebook tried to offer a free version of the internet in India, it didn’t do very well. The company’s app, called Free Basics – which Mark Zuckerberg touted as a way to lift people out of poverty through connectivity – only gives access to limited sites (like Facebook). India eventually banned it and similar services for violating net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should not favor particular sites.

A lesser-known company is trying a different approach. Jana, a Boston-based tech company, helps smartphone users in developing countries get online for free with ad support. MCent, the company’s mobile browser, which can access any site, displays a variety of advertisements from advertisers such as the NBA, Amazon and Saavn, a site that plays Hindi music. Then it uses that ad revenue to pay for the data consumers use. In the back, the technology can identify a phone number and network, then credit money to that person’s account.

“We started the project to find a way to provide truly unlimited internet access to one billion people,” says Jana founder Nathan Eagle.

[Photo: Jana Mobile]

The company launched its browser in India in July, and within three months it had one million users. Every six weeks since then, the number of users has roughly doubled. For users, the savings can be significant; in some cases, people pay around 10% of the average daily wage for connectivity. In India, for example, where many people live on around $30 a month, a monthly phone bill with data can cost $3. In many emerging markets around the world, where smartphone ownership is growing rapidly, people who own smartphones cannot afford data plans.

Jana says she’s able to earn more money from ads than she spends on offsetting data costs – paying up to 70 megabytes of data per day per user that would otherwise accrue pay-as-you-go fees – as advertisers begin to shift to targeted mobile ads. Advertisers now spend around $200 billion in emerging markets, often on traditional platforms.

[Photo: Jana Mobile]

“It’s currently basically going into the pockets of the people who own the billboards in Lagos, or the radio stations in Sao Paolo, or the television networks in Delhi,” says Eagle. “If we can get 10% of that spend redirected away from these big media owners, and straight to the very consumers that every brand is trying to reach, then we would be able to provide a billion of people free and unrestricted Internet access.

The company began developing its technology a decade ago and initially offered users internet access in exchange for participating in surveys by organizations such as the United Nations. But they quickly realized there was no demand for market research at the scale they could provide (tens of millions of people) and the business model couldn’t support their goal, so they changed course towards advertising.

Jana’s mission is similar to projects like Alphabet’s Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to create wireless networks, or Elon Musk and Richard Branson’s plans to use satellites to same thing. Facebook has been testing solar-powered drones broadcasting over the internet. But while Project Loon aims to bring the internet to remote areas — or disaster areas, like Puerto Rico — Jana is focused on reaching the 90% of people in emerging markets who have connectivity and simply can’t. not afford to use it.

“When you watch something like Project Loon. . . the reality is that they’re trying to provide coverage to populations that aren’t reachable by the cellular network,” says Eagle. “But the reality is that these populations are declining quite dramatically as cellular networks become more ubiquitous. So even though these are big projects, that’s not the problem we’re trying to solve. »

The company now provides free Internet access to more than 40 million users in 15 markets. It plans to expand into Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. “If it continues to scale, I think we have a reasonable chance of reaching one billion users in three to five years,” Eagle says.

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