Verizon Ventures was the lead investor in a $57 million Series C round for Jana, a Boston-based startup that brings Internet access to mobile users in emerging markets. Tim Armstrong, CEO of Verizon's AOL, will take a seat on Jana's board.
Jana's mCent app enables mobile users to access free mobile data in exchange for accepting ads. That data can be consumed by browsing the web, using other apps, or sending messages, and users can send "airtime gifts" to others, sharing their data access.
The Boston-based startup claims more than 30 million users and has partnered with more than 300 carriers. The app -- which, notably, is available only for Android -- is offered in major markets including Brazil and India, and Jana hopes the new funding allows it to gain a foothold in the world's largest smartphone market.
"Over 30 million users have benefited from Jana's free, unrestricted Internet access, but our goal is to reach the next billion," said Jana CEO Nathan Eagle in a prepared release. "With Verizon's support and Tim Armstrong as an advisor, we look forward to continuing record-breaking growth in emerging markets and quick expansion into China."
Jana's offering is similar to Facebook's Free Basics service, but it offers unfettered data access instead of bundling content from specific providers. So Jana appeared to get a boost last week when India blocked Facebook's Free Basics service on net neutrality grounds.
Re/code reports that Verizon (NYSE: VZ) stressed that the funding is merely "an investment and not indicative of the telco's broader strategy," and that Armstrong is joining the board on his own, not at the behest of the carrier. And a Verizon representative emphasized to FierceWireless that Armstrong is joining an advisory board and won't have a role in managing the company.
But it's clearly worth noting that Verizon is moving aggressively into advertising and over-the-top content as wireless service competition heats up and the smartphone market slows. The carrier last year bought AOL, whose media properties include Engadget, TechCrunch and the Huffington Post, and it is quickly pursuing video with the launch of Go90. And Verizon isn't hesitant to embrace sponsored content, as evidenced by last month's launch of its FreeBee Data.
Verizon's wireless service isn't available to users outside the U.S., of course, and sponsored data models clearly face a challenge in many markets. But despite the carrier's insistence otherwise, it may be working to find a way to reach huge numbers of mobile users in emerging markets.
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Article updated at 11:30 a.m. ET to clarify Armstrong's role at Jana