In Internet.org Push, Facebook Buys Pryte, A Specialist In Selling Small Mobile Data Parcels

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Facebook these days is focused on adding “the next billion” users to its social network, with a focus on consumers in emerging markets and the mobile devices that many of them will use as their primary route to getting online. Today it made its latest acquisition as part of that strategy: it acquired Pryte, a small company based out of Helsinki, Finland, which has developed technology that lets app makers and carriers sell mobile data in incremental (read: very low-priced) packages based around particular app usage or other parameters.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed. Pryte, according to the Reuters story that first broke the news, had not officially launched, although it has a fully functioning website, and according to the note the Pryte team had posted on the site confirming the deal, it had already been “enabling partnerships between app and content providers, and mobile operators.”

What’s interesting about this acquisition is that it furthers the work that Facebook has already been doing to make Internet (and Facebook) access more affordable for the masses. That includes the work that Facebook started years ago with its Facebook Zero initiative, where carriers working with Facebook have created special services that zero-rate access to a pared-down version of the site on lower-end devices (a template that other social networks like Twitter have followed). It also acquired Snaptu in 2011 to help work on versions of the site that could be used on lower-end, feature phone devices.

While a low-end device strategy for emerging markets definitely still makes a lot of sense — the smartphone tipping point that we’ve seen in more mature markets like Europe and the U.S. has yet to be realised in many less mature countries – this is about Facebook looking further ahead, and also taking into account the huge proliferation of inexpensive smartphones that are now in the market, from companies like Nokia as well as a number of Android-based OEMs. These will be the devices that already and will in the future define how Facebook is accessed in the world.

But from what I understand, even in cases where there are a lot of these devices being used in regions like Africa, a lot of consumers are not taking data services on them because they are too expensive. Solutions like the kind that Pryte is developing are one step to bridging that device/usage gap a bit more.

We don’t know how much of Pryte’s service will be rolled into Facebook’s existing offerings — the Reuters story makes it sound a bit like an acqui-hire — but in any case this is also a sign of how Facebook is looking for more technology and people that can help it forge better relationships with carriers.

And that’s because, for all the work that Facebook or Google may be trying to do today to further connectivity and perhaps control it themselves, this is a bit of a play that acknowledges that carriers are in many cases still very much controlling the pipe, and likely will be for some time to come. Therefore, it makes sense to figure out how best to work with them.

Still, the fact that Facebook could own the technology that will enable incremental data purchases is a sign of how it is also bringing one more piece of the connectivity puzzle under its own wing.

The company helped spearhead the non-profit Internet.org initiative last year — a wider group that includes other companies like Google — that are working with local organisations to give online access to ordinary people.

But it has also been making some big business moves to further this along, too, establishing a “connectivity lab” that is working on things like drone-based internet access, to provide connectivity to areas where there is little or none (although apparently it missed out on Titan Aerospace, acquired by Google).

The full note from Pryte below:

Today, we are delighted to announce that our team will be joining Facebook. Since we launched Pryte we have worked to reimagine the way mobile data works in an app-driven world, by enabling partnerships between app and content providers, and mobile operators.

 Now, we’re joining Facebook, whose mission to connect the world by partnering with operators to bring people online in a profitable way aligns closely with our team’s goals. We are excited to get started, and make an even greater impact by advancing the work we are doing in collaboration with Facebook’s great team working to further Internet.org’s goal of making affordable internet access available to everyone in the world.

We want to express appreciation to our investors, who believed in us and in our vision from the early days. Thank you to everyone who has joined us on this journey.

- Pryte team