Facebook in India
A staff member stands next to a display screen during a joint news conference by Reliance Communications Ltd. and Facebook Inc. in Mumbai Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. Facebook has joined with India's Reliance to offer free access to a handful of online services in India, broadening its campaign to boost Internet use in the developing world. Reuters

Facebook Inc. could soon be the de facto Internet gateway for tens of millions of Indians who still don’t own smartphones and can’t afford a data plan. The social networking giant has brought its Internet.org app for mobile phones to the subcontinent under an agreement with Reliance Communications Ltd., India’s fourth-biggest wireless provider. The service will provide free access to several popular apps that offer messaging, news, weather reports and other basic services.

This makes India, already home to the largest base of Facebook users after the U.S., the sixth market in which the company is looking to boost its presence while offering a range of free apps to consumers who could not otherwise afford mobile Internet access. The app can be accessed even on feature phones that support only older, 2G wireless technology.

Internet.org is an alliance that Facebook started in 2013 with five other global technology companies, including Ericsson and Samsung Electronics Co., to improve Internet access worldwide. Typing Internet.org on a Web browser in India currently leads to a page with the following message: “You must be on the Reliance network to use Internet.org. If you'd like to access these websites for free, use a SIM card from Reliance.”

India, the world’s third-largest smartphone market, is still a place where four out of five people don’t have smartphones. It is also a market where well over 90 percent of wireless subscribers have prepaid plans with little or no access to the Internet, making Facebook’s free app and services extremely attractive.

Reliance Communications held just over 11 percent of India’s 944 million wireless subscribers at the end of December, according to data from the country’s telecom regulator.

Reliance customers in India will, through Facebook’s Internet.org app, be able to access several popular Indian services providing news, job searches, government information and the like, at no data charge, the companies said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

The services can be accessed via the Internet.org Android app, available at www.internet.org, from the start screen of the Opera Mini mobile Web browser, or by using the Android app UC Browser for Internet.org. To begin with, the app has been launched in five states, but is expected to cover all of India over the next three months.

Facebook launched the Internet.org app in July 2014, and has already introduced it in Africa in Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania. It’s also available in Colombia.

Facebook’s own app was already available in a data-sipping format installed on many basic feature phones, which helped the company garner a large following in markets such as India and Indonesia. The Internet.org app takes that a big step further in enticing mobile phone users to stay connected through the Facebook ecosystem.