February 21, 2012 Written by James Middleton
Social network Facebook is expanding its reach into the emerging markets through a partnership with France Telecom owned Orange in Africa.As with SMS, Facebook via USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) uses the signalling channel as the bearer and effectively allows users to access the service, regardless of the phone that they are using. So Orange users with older or very basic handsets without an internet connection or data plan will be able to update their Facebook pages through a text-based interface.
As a bonus, Orange states that many African users are already familiar with the concept of USSD services as it is a medium widely used to access account information and callback services. Orange expects that over one million customers will use the Facebook service in the first year. The first market to get the service will be Orange Côte d’Ivoire, followed by other operations through 2012.
The operator launched the service at the end of 2011 for Mobinil customers in Egypt, and over 350,000 customers connected to Facebook via USSD within the first month.
The Facebook partnership follows a similar initiative in 2011 with Google, which saw Orange’s pan-African operations seek to exploit SMS as a platform for delivering Google services to low-end devices in use across Africa and the Middle East.
The service, which gives Gmail users a quota of free text messages they can send to any Orange customer, will ultimately be rolled-out across Orange’s entire African footprint. As the SMS quota is used, an additional five messages are added each time an Orange customer replies to the initial SMS. Through this service, Gmail users can add Orange mobile customers (even if they do not have a Gmail account) to their address books and initiate chat sessions with them. For Orange customers, the service is free of charge and requires no subscription; chat messages sent from their mobile phones are billed at normal SMS rates.
Facebook, late last year, signalled its intent to tap into the developing markets with a version of its platform that can be embedded on the SIM. Card manufacturer Gemalto, which developed the offering, said the software application is embedded inside the SIM and allow users to access core Facebook features from the phone’s main screen, through a cascade of menus. Users can also receive notifications of wall posts and messages, view friend requests and status updates. A subset of SMS is used as the data carrier, allowing messages to be sent and received without user interaction.