Net Neutrality and the Digital Divide

There is an interesting idea floating around the industry that is bound to annoy fans of net neutrality. The idea comes from Roslyn Layton who does telecom research at Aalborg University in Denmark. She served on the FCC Transition team for the new administration.

She envisions zero-rating as the best way to solve the digital divide and to finally bring Internet access to everybody. She says that after decades of not finding any other solutions that this might the only reasonable path to get Internet access to people that can’t afford a monthly subscription.

The idea is simple – there are companies who will provide an advertising-driven broadband connection for free to customers, particularly on a cellphone. It’s not hard to envision big companies like Facebook or Google sponsoring cellphone connections and providing data access to customers who would be a captive audience for their ads and content.

This idea is already working elsewhere. Facebook offers this same service in other countries today under the brand name “Free Basics.’ While it certainly costs Facebook to buy the wholesale data connections they must have done the math and figured that having a new customer on their platform is worth more than the cost. Facebook’s stated goal is to serve most of the billions of people on earth and this is a good way to add a lot of customers. With Free basics customers get full use of the Facebook platform along with the basic ability to surf the web. However, the free basic service does not allow a user to freely watch streaming video or to do other data-intensive activities that are not part of the Facebook universe – it’s not an unlimited data plan. I can remember similar products in the US back in the dial-up days when several dial-up providers that gave free connections as long as the customers didn’t mind being bombarded by ads.

There are certainly upsides to this. Such a service would provide enough bandwidth for people to use the web for the basics like hunting for a job or doing school work. And users would get unlimited use of the Facebook platform for functions such as messaging or watching Facebook-sponsored video and content. There are still a substantial number of people in the US who can’t afford a broadband subscription and this would provide a basic level of broadband to anybody willing to deal with the ad-heavy environment.

But there are downsides. This idea violates net neutrality. Even if the current FCC does away with net neutrality one has to think that a future FCC will institute something similar. But even with net neutrality rules in place the FCC could make an exception for a service that tackles the digital divide.

The real downside is that this is not the same as the real internet access that others enjoy. Users would be largely trapped inside whatever platform sponsors their product. That could be Facebook or Google, but it could also be an organization with a social or political agenda. Anybody using this kind of free platform would have something less than unfettered Internet access, and they would be limited to whatever the platform sponsor allows them to see or do outside the base platform. At best this could be called curated Internet access, but realistically it’s a platform to give sponsors unlimited access to users.

But I think we have to be realistic that nobody has yet found a solution to the digital divide. The FCC’s Lifeline program barely makes a dent in it. And I’m not aware of any major ISP who has ever found any mechanism to solve the digital divide issue.

While Facebook offers this in many countries around the globe they received massive pushback when they tried to bring this to India. The Indian government did not want a class of people given a clearly inferior class of Internet connectivity. But in India the government is working hard themselves to solve the digital divide. But there is nobody in the US giving the issue any more than lip service. The issue has been with us since the dial-up days and there has been little progress in the decades since then.

I read some persuasive articles a few years ago when the net neutrality debate was being discussed about this kind of product. There were arguments made that there would be long-term negative ramifications from having a second-class kind of Internet access. The articles worried about the underlying sponsors heavily influencing people with their particular agenda.

But on the flip side, somebody who doesn’t have broadband access probably thinks this is a great idea. It’s unrealistic to think that people have adequate broadband access when they can only get it at the library or a coffee shop. For broadband to benefit somebody it needs to be available when and where they need to use it.

I lean towards thinking this as an idea worth trying. I would hope that there would be more than one or two companies willing to sponsor this, in which case any provider who is too obnoxious or restrictive would not retain customers. People who go to sites like Facebook today are already voluntarily subjected to ads, so this doesn’t seem like too steep of a price to pay to get more people connected to the Internet.

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