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Asia market may hold key to the future growth of Facebook

MUMBAI--As Facebook celebrates its 10th birthday, one of its biggest challenges is to tap the mobile market in emerging Asian economies, where it can drive expansion after growth in the West tapers off.

India is expected to overtake the United States as the country with most Facebook users in 2014, with its total number forecast to surge beyond the 150 million mark from the current 93 million level.

But despite its rapid growth in parts of Asia, experts say Facebook cannot afford to be complacent and locally tailored competitors are threatening to steal its thunder in countries such as Indonesia.

With Internet penetration still relatively low in Asia's emerging economies, many people's first online experience comes when they log on with a mobile phone.

Kevin D'Souza, Facebook India's head of growth and mobile partnerships, says the key to success in emerging markets therefore depends on encouraging access via basic mobiles known as “feature phones.”

“We're already seeing the majority of users sign up to Facebook on mobile devices,” D'Souza told AFP.

“A large chunk of mobile phone users in India are feature phone users, and with low price points, these devices are becoming the first Internet connected device many people will own.”

He said more than 100 million people globally are now using the “Facebook for Every Phone” app specifically for non-smartphones and many of the next billion users Facebook hopes to attract are expected to do the same.

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The Nokia Asha 501 feature phone now comes preloaded with Facebook, while India's telecom giant Bharti Airtel announced last month that it would offer free Facebook access in nine local languages to prepaid customers.

In India, more than 40 percent of the 1.2 billion population have cell phones but barely five percent are smartphone users, according to estimates by consultancy Analysys Mason.

Nevertheless, researchers at eMarketer predict India will reach 152.4 million Facebook users this year, surpassing the 151.1 million forecast for the U.S.

Aakrit Vaish, a founder of mobile company Haptik, said it was not just the sheer population size that made India such a big Facebook player.

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