If mobile operators are desperate to get people using more data, why do they make the process of buying it so hard? As a prepaid customer of a network who shall not be named, Opera Software’s Peter Panait Lojmand observation this morning struck a vicious chord.

“We tested all of the operators in South Africa,” he explains, “and one operator makes you go through 14 steps in a menu before you can buy data. It’s so obscure. Even our team didn’t know what some of the options meant.”

What makes it worse, of course, is that the USSD menus often change without warning and if you get the option wrong, you have to start the whole process again. One of the major complaints we often hear from operators is that people never buy data bundles to go with their shiny new smartphones.

Frankly, it’s no wonder at all to me.

Which is why Opera’s Web Pass looks so very promising. The Norwegian firm wants to make buying data not just simple, but more intelligent too.

Opera is best known for its Mini browser, a once ubiquitous and still popular web browser that’s built into millions of phones, TVs, fridges and cars worldwide. Mini’s key advantage over other browsers is that all traffic is intercepted by Opera’s servers where it is optimised and compressed, essentially speeding up page load times on slow connections. It’s a popular service for its users  – although those of us who are weary of where our data goes tend to avoid it and stick to something more simple.

Web Pass is expected to launch in the next couple of months and is currently being shown off at AfricaCom in Cape Town. It’s been trialled with the likes of Airtel around Africa, and is deceptively simple. Rather than going through a top-up menu to buy data when you’ve run out, you simply fire up the Mini browser where you’re met with a variety of options for getting online. Bundles are presented in a store-type layout and two taps will get you from shop to surfing without any hassle at all.

So far, so straightforward. And so thousand-times-better-than-it-is now. What’s even more clever about Opera Web Pass, though, is how flexible it is. Opera is teaming up with advertisers to use Web Pass to offer free internet access, explains Lojmand, if users want. So you might see an offer of an hour’s worth of data – and Lojmand says time based deals make more sense to end users than bandwidth-based ones – for free so long as you don’t mind looking at an ad for the local supermarket every once in a while.

It’s hugely flexible too. The offer you selective free browsing, limited to certain sites. Or it might be lower than normal cost but restricted to 10 minutes of Facebook, or Twitter. It’s an elegant way of breaking up the cost of access into manageable chunks for those without enough disposable income to purchase large bundles at a time.

And that’s not all. Because Opera Web Pass is configured on device, says Lojmand, it’s also a lot more flexible than operators can be at the network level. As an example, it’s not a trivial task for a mobile operator to zero rate a site for free access. Airtel Nigeria, for example, has been offering free access to ebola awareness sites using Web Pass.

The downside, of course, is that Opera will be using Web Pass for gathering information and targeting ads, so we’ll be watching to see how well networks communicate that message to inform users should they choose to use it. But the system is slick and could do a lot to encourage more people to go online by taking away both the difficult menus and the cost.

We’ll catch up again when it’s out.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.