If not Facebook's Free Basics, then what?

A dislike button graffiti. Facebook has withdrawn its Free Basics platform in India following a ruling by the Telecom Regulatory Authority to ban the service based on the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations. Photo by: Ze'ev Barkan / CC BY

One week ago, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ruled in favor of net neutrality, or equal access to all Web content, when it banned free mobile data programs that favor some websites over others. The decision, brought about in part as a reaction to the Free Basics service from Facebook, effectively shuts down the program.

It remains to be seen whether zero rating services like Free Basics, which do not charge customers for data on a limited range of apps or sites, might provide the pathways to affordable and fully open Internet access for all. But the decision was a blow to Facebook’s efforts in India, and as the company identifies next steps, it must consider other ways to connect the unconnected in a country that is home to a quarter of the world’s offline population.

“The goal of public policy should be to make the Internet accessible, affordable, open and safe for everyone, especially for the poor,” said Uwe Deichmann, co-director of the World Bank’s 2016 “Digital Dividends” report.  

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While the World Bank supports the stated goal of programs like Free Basics — to expand Internet access to all — it is up to regulators in each country to take local context into account as they make informed decisions about whether to allow such services, he said.

“In the meantime the challenge remains for the private sector, as well as governments and institutions such as the World Bank, to find feasible ways to reconcile the goals of universal, affordable, open and safe access,” Deichmann said.

The TRAI has called for nationwide broadband, a plan where tech companies like Facebook and international development organizations like the World Bank could play a key role.

“One of the major takeaways from this extensive review is that delivering [broadband] in a meaningful manner to the digital have-nots (which constitute the vast majority of India) requires a far more holistic approach than has been taken hitherto,” the TRAI wrote in an April 2015 report. The country launched the National Optic Fiber Network Project, estimated to cost $3 billion, in 2011, but as of today the program has achieved fewer than 5 percent of its targets.

What India could really use assistance with is its digital infrastructure, even though that might be less appealing to technology companies like Facebook and Google looking toward more high-tech solutions like drones and balloons in their competition to connect the next billion.

As Facebook searches for a successor to replace its first employee in India, who announced last week that she would step down to return to headquarters, the company might consider how the new managing director of Facebook India can partner more effectively with the TRAI. The authority says in its broadband report that relevant stakeholders could assist with decisions pertaining to spectrum and infrastructure as well as the the planning and design of digital governance services. “Without this, digital India will remain a dream,” the report reads.

The TRAI decision was motivated in part by a concern that companies offering free access to a limited range of services might shape the way new Internet users view the entire Internet.

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Some have asked, for example, if Facebook can really consider Free Basics adoption the way to connect the the unconnected when millions of Facebook users do not understand they are using the Internet and have options beyond the social media platform.

“Facebook wasn't giving free Internet access with Free Basics,” Nikhil Pahwa, the editor and publisher of the Indian news site MediaNama and a critic of Facebook’s efforts in India, wrote Devex in an email. “It was only giving access to a group of 130 websites, which doesn't constitute the Internet.”

While Facebook launched Free Basics in India with a limited number of partners, it later opened the platform to any services that are optimized for performance on older phones and slower network connections and are in compliance with local laws and regulations. Still, new users were not able to access anywhere near the full extent of the Internet, including the most popular website in the world, Google. That is why other efforts favor access to all content under certain conditions rather than some content at no cost.

The Mozilla Foundation, for example, is partnering with mobile network operators to provide users with access to any site, but only in exchange for something else. In Bangladesh, the program gives users 20 megabytes of daily free data in exchange for viewing an ad, and in Africa, users receive 500 megabytes of data a month in exchange for purchasing $40 Firefox OS smartphones.

Some say the only solution is to make the Internet, or at least low bandwidth access, generically free for all users.

“Imagine a world where mobile phones connect to the Internet in the same way that they simply connect to the mobile phone network, where there are no data charges for very low data speeds,” writes Steve Song, the founder of the low-cost community telephone network Village Telco. “On the surface at least it would seem that the benefits to both the public and private sector would dramatically outweigh the costs of doing this.”

Mobile network operators might not be inclined to offer free data for fear that they would lose most of their SMS business to services like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. But just as pre-paid users on mobile phone networks are connected to voice networks for free, connecting all phones to the Web by default would offer network effects with millions more data users on the network.

Other options, according to the World Bank’s Deichmann, include free or subsidized airtime or data plans for the poor, perhaps through a universal service fund replenished by telecom fees.

“It is unlikely that anyone could come up with a model that would provide free Internet access to everyone,” Deichmann said, noting that the funds would either have to come from taxes, or from deals with providers or sponsors. “Ultimately one hopes that technological progress and sector reforms will drive prices for generic Internet access down to a point where everyone who can afford a mobile phone can also afford an open data plan.”

Facebook: Free Basics is an open platform, not a 'walled garden'

Times are tough for Internet.org, the Facebook initiative to connect the world. Facebook is prioritizing local partnerships and staff with global development experience to ensure that challenges in India do not create a domino effect in other countries where the service has launched.

The Internet and Mobile Association of India proposed options including free Internet coupons that would allow consumers to select which sites they want to use. But that would require content owners to have relationships with all operators, which could be a burden on organizations like BabyCenter, a digital parenting network with a mission to improve maternal health on a global scale that is a Free Basics content partner in India.

“Free Basics offered us a novel way to help millions of additional women in low-resource settings with specific content tailored to their needs and literacy levels,” Lindsay Dills, the San Francisco-based director of strategic programs at BabyCenter, told Devex. “This change means that other channels become even more important, and we will continue to explore ways to reach women at all levels of the socio-economic pyramid.”

Beyond Free Basics, BabyCenter reaches women in India with mobile voice calls and SMS messages to drive behavior change. The organization is working with local partners to expand these services that do not require Internet connectivity, while continuing to support the Facebook service in 26 other countries.

The debate over Free Basics in India pits those who say restricted access to the Internet stifles innovation and entrepreneurship, and therefore economic development, against those who say that limited Internet for the poor is better than no Internet for the poor.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he remains committed to India, and while the challenges in the country have taken the company by surprise, this ruling also presents an opportunity for Facebook to try a more inclusive approach that gives everyone access to the same Internet.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.