The UK's latest mobile operator Samba won't charge punters for its wireless broadband. Instead it will ask customers to watch adverts in exchange for network access.
Samba is camping on Three's network and offering almost 7MB of data for every minute of advertising viewed. That's enough for the company to claim 2.5 minutes of ads a day will cover the 517MB data consumed by the average mobile customer a month.
A battery meter-style app tells the user how much data they've got left, and topping up is just a matter of clicking on an ad and going off to make a cup of tea.
We've been here before, many times, but the advertising-supported network is a concept that just refuses to die. In 1999 it seemed as though adverts would not only pay for PC internet access, but for the PC too, as all sorts of companies pissed their cash away trying to grab some of the market that would eventually fall to Google.
In mobile we've seen advertising-funding Wi-Fi projects rise and fall, and mobile phone networks that inserted audio ads into every call. Most optimistic was Blyk, which launched a UK mobile virtual network operator entirely funded by message-delivered ads, only it wasn't entirely funded and shut down the UK operation in 2009.
Blyk lives on, supplying advertising expertise to Orange among others, and offering customers tokens and vouchers rather than free connectivity.
Samba points to its "team of seasoned telecoms and media execs backed by some of the industry's most recognised entrepreneurs" as proof that it can make the model work, ignoring the ongoing problem that free services tend to attract a tight-fisted demographic that is unappealing to advertisers*. The company is charging a fiver for its SIM (including postage), and £25 for a SIM-plus-USB-dongle, so some commitment from customers is needed.
It's hard to believe that Samba will succeed where so many others have failed, but for a summer of free internet it might be worth exploring anyway. ®
* Although not El Reg readers of course: you might be reading this content for free but we know you're all quality people with a high discretionary income.