There are a number of companies that offer carrier billing for companies in the mobile space — that is, services that let people buy content on their devices and charge it right to their carrier — but there is only one that has secured deals with Facebook, Amazon and RIM to do it: an unassuming UK billing and analytics company by the name of Bango.
And while you may not know who they are, chances are that the folks at Bango probably know you.
Bango, established in 2002, is providing the back-end billing that Facebook will offer to developers who want to put any kind of premium content around apps that are built for Facebook’s mobile web platform.
That service was announced earlier this week. Before that, Bango was already providing billing in RIM’s Appworld: RIM claims that this easy billing option, combined with considerably fewer apps in its store, has made its developers more money than competing app stores such as the Android Market. Bango also works with Opera on its app storefront; with a number of app publishers including EA, Gameloft and Fox; and operators like AT&T, Sprint and Vodafone.
Bango’s service will also used by Amazon “in due course”, as a result of a deal Amazon and Bango announced in December 2011.
Ray Anderson, CEO of Bango, will not talk about the financial details of any of these services — except to note that while the company publishes a list of rates (first picked up on by Kim-Mai at Inside Mobile Apps), the bigger the customer is, the more favorable the terms.
In the case of Amazon, he will not speak about any details at all: whether it would be used to incorporate carrier billing into its existing Android appstore, or to work with a new product altogether. For example, it is currently running an in-app billing beta for its appstore.
Given that there are a number of ways of charging to a carrier’s bill — there is Boku, and Zong, Netsize and the operators themselves, among others — what is it that has attracted these companies to Bango?
Anderson says it’s a couple of things: there is the fact that billing is automatic and doesn’t require SMS confirmations as some competitors do. But Bango also has possibly one of the most extensive databases of people’s numbers, spanning “forty or fifty countries,” all aggregated into one platform. Anderson says Bango uses this database to help make those transactions, and especially repeat transactions, smoother and easier.
On Bango’s platform, he says, “If we pick up information about a user, we make sure it is used again later.”
(Creepy sidenote: that platform has tagged me, too: we checked and Bango had a record of my very first mobile phone model, who the carrier was, and of course the number. It also had records of whenever that device touched their systems. Ditto for my newer phone. The thing is, that I’m not sure I’ve ever bought anything and charged it to my phone bill.)
Bango has been in operation for the last 10 years, but Anderson says that things have really switched up in the last two to three years, with the rise of smartphones and app usage.
This growth has meant even more data fed into the Bango platform. The Appworld alone he says covers 100 million users; the Opera business brings in another 200 million. And Facebook will add in another 850 million.
Anderson tells me Bango has “a number of other sources” for its data: carriers provide it with that information about who visits its portals; there are others Anderson wouldn’t spell out.
That translates into even more growth. “The reason Bango is seeing a sudden surge of customer interest is because the more information it gets, the more there is for everyone to use,” he says. In that sense, Bango’s customers are happy when would-be competitors join in the billing fun.
While that might sound like a minefield for privacy issues, Anderson claims it’s the opposite because Bango has become a trusted, one-way repository for this information.
“A mobile carrier wouldn’t give the phone numbers of arbitrary people to arbitrary websites for billing,” he says. “But it is happy to provide us as long as we don’t pass on to anyone else, and only use it for billing transactions.”
Why carrier billing? Credit-card based services like Apple’s are catchy for markets where plastic is widely used, but Anderson says that the carrier billing facility really becomes more obvious when you are starting to target people who either don’t have credit cards, or don’t want to use them, especially for small transactions. Anderson cites one customer of theirs in South Africa: when the billing service was credit card based, the conversion was four in 10,000; he said the introduction of carrier billing turn that in 6,000 in 10,000.
“We call Apple the betamax of payments. And Bango is the VHS,” he said. “Both are okay, but it was VHS that became more popular because it was available to everyone.”
Who else might be joining the party? Anderson said the company is talking to everyone, including those who are already offering carrier billing through other routes. “If Google wants the best experience for payment they should probably start working with us,” he joked.