Facebook farming rural users for Indian crown jewel

India could become the world's biggest Facebook user if the company can overcome the "mammoth" challenges of creating an ecosystem for relevant content and providing affordable mobile Internet access to the rural areas.
Written by Mahesh Sharma, Correspondent

India could become the world's biggest Facebook user if the company can unlock the potential market of rural users, by growing an ecosystem for relevant local content and the cost of mobile access.

For Facebook, rural users may hold the key to tapping the Indian market.

In an interview with ZDNet, Forrester vice president and country manager India, Manish Bahl, said the subcontinent's 61 million Facebook users trails only the United States and Brazil for national adoption of the world's biggest social network.

About 30 million Indians are aged between 18 and 24 years old, and access the site from their mobile. Forrester forecasts that India's overall mobile Internet user base will grow by more than 25 percent year-on-year until 2018.

"With less than eight percent penetration rate in a country of 1.2 billion population, Facebook has a strong reason to get excited about India," Bahl said.

With increasing urbanization and improving per capita income, more people will begin to use the Internet, and the use of smartphones will rise quickly, the vice president added.

"Yes. If the strategy is executed well, India could become Facebook's biggest user base as it doesn't operate in China," he noted.

Bahl praised the company's seed strategy to provide free messaging services for Airtel and Reliance customers, which covers a significant percentage of Indian mobile subscribers, but warned the company would face challenges when it ventured out from the city into the rural areas.

"Mobile Internet prices is still on a much higher side in India which could impact Facebook's ambitious plans. Considering the demographic profile of India, Facebook would need to create an ecosystem of developers to create regional content which is a mammoth task," he said.

In an interview Monday with The Hindu Business Line, Facebook's country growth manager for India, Kevin D'Souza said the social networking believes farmers, who have apparently discussed crop prices online, hold the key to breaching the 100 million user milestone--and the nation's digital future.

"Our Facebook site is actually built for small screens and it doesn't even require memory on device. (Working on) these kinds of things helped us break the technology barrier to all the non-data users," he told The Hindu Business Line.

"We believe that Facebook is one of the services which can help expand Internet in India," D'Souza said.

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