FreedomPop, the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that offers SIM cards with completely free basic mobile service plans, has announced its latest endeavor to get mobile users signed up in the U.S.: zero-rated WhatsApp access.
For the uninitiated, zero-rating is a practice used by some mobile networks that encourages use of a specific app by not charging for data used by the given service. It’s often part of a commercial agreement between an internet service provider (ISP) / mobile network and a company, and it’s typically aimed at getting people to use the app. It’s also used in many developing markets as a (charitable) way of letting people use specific knowledge-based services, such as Wikipedia.
Founded out of Los Angeles in 2012, FreedomPop has built its business around giving away a small number of text messages and limited talk time and mobile data in hopes of “upselling” to those who require more. It had been an entirely U.S.-focused affair since the company’s inception, but it went international for the first time back in September with its U.K. launch, followed by Spain in April — the company’s first launch after closing a $50 million funding round in January.
The Spain launch gave a glimpse of what was to come elsewhere, as it also included completely free and unlimited access to WhatsApp. “We are looking at similar models in other countries,” FreedomPop CEO Stephen Stokols told VentureBeat at the time.
WhatsApp for free
Now we know that the first of those “other countries” to get the zero-rated WhatsApp treatment will be the U.S., representing the first time (we’re aware of) that WhatsApp has been zero-rated in its home market.
“There really is no reason anyone should have to pay for voice and text in today’s environment,” explained Chris Chen, FreedomPop’s SVP of product. “Over-the-top communication services like WhatsApp have eliminated the need for traditional voice and text services that carriers still force U.S. users to pay hundreds of dollars a year for,” he said. “The zero-rated model is gaining traction in more developing countries, and FreedomPop is leading the way here in the U.S.”
A number of mobile networks around the world have offered zero-rated access to WhatsApp, even before it was acquired by Facebook, but it has largely been limited to developing markets. One notable exception is in Germany, where WhatsApp partnered with German mobile network E-Plus back in 2014 to launch its very own SIM card — called the WhatsApp Sim — which was aimed at WhatsApp power-users who want unlimited access to the service, regardless of what their remaining data allowance was for the month. One notable facet of FreedomPop’s offering is that it is run entirely off its own volition and isn’t in partnership with anyone — including WhatsApp.
One additional interesting detail about FreedomPop’s new SIM card plan is that it’s not limited to the U.S. — people traveling to the U.K., Germany, France, Portugal, Italy, and more than 30 countries will still be able to use their SIM and access WhatsApp completely gratis.
Free WhatsApp access, plus its core “hook,” which includes 100 voice minutes, 500 SMS, and 200MB of additional data, will surely gain FreedomPop the attentions of many more users.