For years, Facebook has been cutting deals with telecom carriers in developing countries like India and the Philippines to offer free Facebook access to cellphone customers using simple phones with no data plans.
Now, for the first time, Americans will be able to get free Facebook, too, even if they don't have a mobile data plan.
In January, GoSmart Mobile, a little-known low-cost prepaid service from T-Mobile US, will begin bundling free access to Facebook's social network and instant-messaging service with all of its mobile plans, including a basic $25-a-month unlimited voice plan. The service is primarily aimed at smartphones that run Apple's iOS or Google's Android software, but it will also work on the cheaper, more basic devices known as feature phones.
For GoSmart, which is sold primarily through independent shops in urban areas, free Facebook is a way to differentiate itself from other prepaid cellular brands — including the more upscale offerings that T-Mobile sells under its own brand and through its MetroPCS unit.
"This is something that no one else is offering in the United States," said Gavin Dillon, T-Mobile's vice president of partner brands. "It's really about providing more value for GoSmart's cost-conscious customers."
As in other markets, the free taste of Facebook, including access to videos and other multimedia content embedded in the service, could also persuade some GoSmart customers to upgrade to plans that include data.
For Facebook, which has 1.2 billion users worldwide, the benefits are less clear. On any given day, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population is on Facebook, according to data that the company released in August. More than 100 million Americans access the service on mobile devices a day.
GoSmart's customers number in the hundreds of thousands, so any increase in Facebook usage will be minimal.
But as the social network embarks on its ambitious Internet.org project to bring everyone in the world online, mostly through mobile phones, the T-Mobile deal sends a message that Facebook wants to be ubiquitous, including in its home market.
For GoSmart, Facebook further tweaked its service to help ensure that usage would not count against the limits for GoSmart customers who pay for some data on their plans.