Facebook has activated low-cost internet access in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, according to a report. The launch, which is part of the U.S.-based internet giant’s “Express Wi-Fi” program, is a joint project with Surf, a Kenyan ISP, and went live about three weeks ago.
The service is currently available in Nairobi and surrounding areas. Express Wi-Fi offers a 10-day package in which users get 100 MB free per day, after which they need to top up through recharge agents. Daily internet bundles cost KES 10.00 (US $0.10) for 40 MB and KES 20.00 (US $0.19) for 100 MB, while weekly Express Wi-Fi bundles cost KES 50.00 (US $0.48) for 300 MB and KES 100.00 (US $0.96) for 500 MB. Monthly bundles cost KES 200.00 (US $1.93) for 1.25 GB and KES 500.00 (US $4.81) for 3 GB. Surf Kenya CEO Mark Summer said that the prices are subject to change subsequent to the launch.
Express Wi-Fi is Facebook’s latest attempt—under its Internet.org initiative—to spread internet access in developing countries, the intent, of course, being to add users to Facebook. Before Kenya, it recently launched in Uganda, Nigeria and India. A previous program, called Free Basics, ran into trouble because by offering zero-rated access to Facebook and selected other sites, it ran afoul of net neutrality principles and was banned by India’s national regulator in February 2016. Express Wi-Fi is different in that it will not zero-rate and there will be no free connectivity.
The question is, will Express Wi-Fi be a genuine threat to mobile operators in Kenya? Its data is certainly much cheaper than that offered by the MNOs: Safaricom sells a 65 MB daily internet bundle for KES 50.00 (US $0.48), and Airtel and Orange charge the same amount for even less data, 50 MB and 40 MB, respectively. However, it is by no means clear what quality level Facebook and Surf will be able to deliver, what the actual footprint of the service will look like and how many hotspots there will be.
Even if Express Wi-Fi delivers on its promises, we believe that there are things the MNOs in Kenya can offer potential customers that Facebook cannot, at least at this point. Beyond the idea of cellular data versus Wi-Fi, operators in the African markets have discovered the power of mobile money services—notably Safaricom’s M-Pesa—as a way of attracting and keeping customers, and from all the evidence we can see, access to mobile money is going to continue to be a very important priority for users in this region. Stand-alone, non-MNO data services, since they lack this incentive, may have a hard time catching on despite the low initial pricing.