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Google launches third-world mobile web land grab

Aims to corner 'next billion users' with Free Zone

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Google has chosen the Philippines as the first country in which to try out Google Free Zone, a new program aimed at getting phone users in developing nations onto the mobile internet by way of the search giant's ad-supported online properties.

The service, which Google launched on Thursday in partnership with wireless carrier Globe Telecom, allows any customer on Globe's network with an internet-capable phone to access Google Search, GMail, and Google+ for free, even if they haven't subscribed to a mobile data plan.

They can even view third-party websites that show up in Google's search results at no charge. Click on any other links, however, and they're redirected to a screen instructing them to purchase mobile data from Globe.

According to a Reuters report, Free Zone is mainly aimed at users of so-called feature phones, which are popular for making phone calls and sending SMS messages but aren't often used to access the internet – something the Chocolate Factory hopes to change.

Naturally, Google and Globe are betting that once users get in the habit of accessing the internet on their mobile phones, they'll eventually upgrade to more fully featured smartphones – and more lucrative data plans.

"[Google Free Zone is] aimed at the next billion users of the Internet, many of whom will be in emerging markets and encounter the Internet first on a mobile phone, without ever owning a PC," said Google product manager AbdelKarim Mardini.

Google says it plans to roll out Free Zone in other countries soon, but launching its pilot program in the Philippines was a shrewd choice. According to 2011 data from the World Bank, the mobile phone market in the Philippines is already saturated, with 101 mobile cellular subscriptions for every 100 people.

While 97 per cent of Filipinos were using SMS messaging as of 2011, however, only 9.8 per cent were using the mobile internet. And both figures are even lower when the data is limited to just the lower-middle-income group – the same group Google is targeting with Free Zone.

And then, of course, there's the all-important ad market. According to the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines (IMMAP), online ad spending in the country currently accounts for a paltry 0.2 per cent of the total, and mobile ads aren't faring much better.

Color us cynical, but we here at The Reg's California aerie think that makes Free Zone a terrific double opportunity for Google, because if there's one thing the Chocolate Factory does even better than search the web, it's sling ads.

By offering its online services as de facto gateways to free internet access for entire nations, Google gains brand awareness and user retention the likes of which marketing alone can't buy. It also gains new markets for its ad-serving networks, effectively launching entire online advertising industries where previously there were none – and cornering them at the same time.

What? You didn't really think there was such a thing as free internet access, did you? ®

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