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Summary:

Facebook’s Internet.org wants to streamline the wireless industry, making mobile data available to billions of people. It’s a noble goal, but as Facebook acknowledges, it needs to start with its own notoriously data-hungry apps.

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photo: Facebook

It’s funny that Facebook has suddenly found religion when it comes to making the mobile internet a more streamlined and less wasteful place. Mobile data efficiency has hardly been its priority in developing its own apps in the past. In fact, last year Facebook actually made its primary social networking app more inefficient when it sent out updates to its iOS and Android apps last November.

According to an analysis by network equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent, Facebook’s app saw a 60 percent spike in signaling data – the constant stream of background communications between the app and Facebook’s servers – and a 25 percent increase in overall airtime usage after the update went out.

Alcatel-Lucent Facebook signaling chart

“During the same period,  the number of Facebook users increased by only 4%,” Alcatel-Lucent said in a blog post. “Clearly, it is not the swelling of Facebook’s community that intensified the load, but rather the introduction of new Facebook features for mobile users and underlying platform changes.”

Verizon App rating FacebookIn February, Facebook Messenger landed on an app list created by Verizon Wireless to protect its customers from mobile software that either drained too much battery power, consumed copious amounts of data or had questionable privacy practice. Messenger scored the highest marks in privacy and battery efficiency, but it was penalized because of its high data consumption.

The message from Verizon was pretty clear: Facebook Messenger is a good app, but watch out, it will suck down bandwidth from your data plan a lot faster than you think.

At least Facebook knows it’s part of the problem

Facebook’s Internet.org is encouraging the mobile industry and the development community to clean up their acts and produce a more efficient and cheaper mobile internet. Meanwhile Facebook itself is running roughshod over mobile carrier networks around the world.

To give Facebook some credit, though, it’s not blithely ignoring the contradiction. In its Internet.org technical document Facebook tacitly admitted its own apps were part of the problem and that it plans to reduce their average consumption considerably. From the document:

For example, at the beginning of this year, our Facebook for Android app used about 12MB per day on average. This is a lot, but it’s not completely unreasonable given the number of photos in the typical experience. By simply focusing on improving data usage, we expect to be able to reduce this to about 1MB per day. If we offer a special variant with fewer photos in developed countries, we will be able to reduce it even further. But even without that, we expect to be able to reduce our data usage by more than 10x through this effort alone.

Facebook audio messenger app

Facebook also points out that it’s feature phone apps are much more network friendly than its smartphone ones, given that they’re in heavy use in developing markets where most people can’t afford expensive data plans or don’t have access to mature mobile broadband networks.

According to Alcatel-Lucent’s calculations Facebook’s apps accounted for 10 percent of the signaling load and 15 percent of the airtime loads on the world’s 2G and 3G networks (which still carry the vast majority of all mobile data). That’s not too surprising given the enormous popularity of Facebook’s mobile apps and services. But if the company were to accomplish its goal of reducing its data footprint by a factor of 10, Facebook could singlehandedly remove an enormous chunk of traffic from the world’s mobile networks.

How Facebook found religion

Mobile carriers have long been calling on developers to build more efficient apps. Why has Facebook suddenly see the light now?

According to mobile analyst Chetan Sharma, Facebook’s new motivation is simple: profit. With all its services pervasive in the west, Facebook is looking to future growth in the developing world. And in the developing world far fewer people are ever going to access the social network through a PC browser. Mobile phones will be way to reach those billions of people, but unlike the wealthy developed world, most of them can’t afford data plans (Sharma points out many of them can’t afford food).

Facebook's global social network

Facebook’s global social network

Facebook wants to continue its rapid global growth, which led it to the realization it has to make mobile data more accessible and cheaper to more people.

“It’s a brilliant business model,” Sharma said. “They want to get more people on Facebook and this is a way to do it. … it’s a commercial venture, not to be confused with a charitable one.”

That’s not to say the Internet.org is some kind of sham. Plenty of great innovation has been driven by the profit motive. AT&T’s Bell Labs didn’t create the world’s first transistor to kick-start the digital age. Ma Bell was tired of replacing blown vacuum tubes in its switches, and the money it saved with the transistor created more profits for the then communications monopoly. Google’s crazy moonshot connectivity projects like Loon are pioneering, but you can bet the end goal is to create more Google users. That certainly doesn’t lessen their significance.

And Internet.org could definitely have big impact on innovation. The details on how Facebook will refashion the mobile industry are still cloudy and the potential obstacles enormous. But as Stacey Higginbotham wrote today Facebook has already changed the server industry with Open Compute. If Internet.org can put that same effort into retooling mobile infrastructure and handset technology, then it could have it could have an enormous impact on the mobile industry. Facebook might even be able to build a cheaper mobile internet parallel to that carriers.

Mark Zuckerberg, I don’t care how you found religion. Welcome to church.

  1. Seriously, does Chetan Sharma think that developing world users who can’t afford food as he thinks are willing to splurge on data plans to use Facebook mobile apps? What is he smoking? The “middle class” in developing world is the user base targeted by mobile networks and that is the demographic Facebook is targeting. And it is not an easy journey to profitability either as the telcos find out with the world’s lowest ARPU, and with 3g not taking off due to pricier data plans. Facebook is going to find it far more challenging in the developing world than what it is used to in the first world.

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  2. Internet need a bandwidth diet.

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