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Facebook to test free-phone app in Canada

The world's biggest social media site has chosen Canada to be the testing ground for an enhanced mobile app that allows users to make free calls from their smartphones.

Facebook Inc.'s Canadian pilot project centres on two key upgrades to its Messenger app, bolstering the technology giant's foray into the mobile market at a time when more and more consumers are flocking to data-hungry smartphones.

As part of its testing, Facebook will allow Canadians to make phone calls to other Messenger users by using an enhanced version of that app on their iPhones. Since the calling feature will use voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) technology, it will affect subscribers' wireless data plans rather than eat away at traditional voice minutes.

A second upgrade to the app will enable users to send short voice messages to other users on either Apple's iOS operating system or on smartphones that use the Android platform.

Providing voice services to users is a burgeoning field for the world's biggest tech companies, which are desperate to find ways to keep people using their services amid a host of competitors vying for attention. Google Inc. offers its users a service called Google Voice that allows anyone who uses the company's e-mail service to make free calls in Canada and the United States from within a Gmail browser window. Microsoft Corp. spent $8.5-billion last year to buy the online phone service Skype, which allows users to call one another via their computers without incurring any charges.

Facebook's entry into the VOIP market reflects the social media giant's desire to keep pace with the shifting communication habits of its more than one billion monthly active users around the world. If the calling feature proves popular, Canadian mobile carriers would benefit from additional usage of wireless data.

While Canada's 18 million Facebook users may be only a fraction of the billion-plus who use the site, the country has been an important part of the company's plans since it first expanded into Canadian universities in the mid-2000s.

Canada is the only country in the world – other than the United States – that has its own dedicated managing director to handle local operations (other parts of the world are divided into large geographic swaths such as Europe and Asia-Pacific).

In a recent interview with The Globe, Canadian managing director Jordan Banks attributed the company's special attention to the country to high adoption rates when the service was still only available to university students, the availability of high-quality Internet service, and the vast geographic distance between users who want to connect with friends on the other side of the country.

"We are a really important nation of Facebook users," he said. "For our size, we get a disproportionate amount of attention and I think it's for all of those reasons. If you put them all together, it's a perfect storm of goodness for Facebook in this country."

The numbers back him up. In a country of 35 million, 12 million users log on to the site every single day and data-tracking firm Comscore has reported that four of every five Internet users in the country have accounts. Canadians even have more friends than users in other countries, averaging almost 230 each versus a global average of 130.

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