Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) joined with Indian operator Bharti Airtel to offer free access to certain Google-based services and Web search results in a unique teaming that highlights the possibilities for toll-free data plans.
The companies launched "Free Zone," which will give users access to Gmail, Google+ and Google search on their mobile phones without ringing up data charges. Under the terms of the agreement, subscribers can search the Internet via Google and access the first page of websites from the results for free. However, if they click further into a website after that, they will be directed to a page where they can purchase a data package. The service is designed to support feature-phone-friendly versions of Google's email and Google+, Google's social network.
"Free Zone aims to put the Web in the hands of more people and empower first-time Internet users with several useful services of the Internet," the two companies said in a statement. "The first page of a website linked from search results is provided at no data cost."
According to Business Today, an Indian news site, users can have unlimited access to Gmail from their mobile browser, but if they click on a link or attachment within the email they will need to buy a data package.
It is unclear if or how much Google is paying Bharti Airtel or what the structure of the agreement is. For Google, the teaming gets more people using its services. And for Airtel, the service could spur more people to buy data plans.
The service represents one model for toll-free data plans, which are being discussed as a distinct possibility in the U.S. market. In mid-May, the Wall Street Journal reported that ESPN was in talks with a Tier 1 wireless operator about potentially subsidizing consumer access to the company's content via mobile.
Executives from Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T (NYSE:T) have expressed enthusiasm for such plans, and have said that content providers are starting to see the value in paying the wireless operator for the data consumed by their subscribers. Net neutrality advocates have expressed alarm at the possibility of such plans, worried that they would favor large content companies willing to pay to get around data caps while disadvantaging smaller ones with fewer resources.
- see this Airtel site
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Business Today article
- see this DNA India article
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