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.

Free Broadband from Facebook

freebasics_facebook_thumbFacebook is talking to the FCC about launching a free Internet service in the US. This would provide a subset of the Internet for free to anybody with a smartphone and would provide such things as news, health information, job sites, and of course Facebook.

This would obviously benefit many people that can’t afford access to the web. Today the national broadband penetration of households that have some kind of access to the web is around 82%. Some of those without broadband live in rural places that don’t have access. Some don’t want Internet access. And the rest would like web access but can’t afford it.

Facebook has launched a similar product around the world in 53 emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America. This is offered under the name Free Basics.

But the free product ran into problems and has been banned in India due to the fact that it violates net neutrality. The Indian net neutrality laws aren’t too different than our own laws and the service is what called zero-rated, meaning that any use of this plan is not counted against a data plan from a participating ISP.

In India the biggest complaint about the product was that it was restricted only to those things that Facebook wanted customers to see and not to the wider Internet. But in Facebook’s favor, it was free.

For this to work in the US, Facebook will need to find a US cellular partner which would not count usage of the app against a data plan. I recall that Facebook was close to this a few years ago in a partnership with T-Mobile that would have provided free access to a suite of products called GoSmart.

But more importantly, Facebook needs to convince the FCC that this is not a violation of net neutrality. The FCC has not formally made any pronouncements about zero-rating of wireless content, but it has talked to the major wireless carriers about the zero-rating they are already doing today.

This is the kind of situation that is really tough for regulators. With this kind of product Facebook could be providing some sort of free access to the web for millions of people in the country that might otherwise not have it. Even if it’s a scrubbed and sanitized piece of the web, it’s hard to find anything wrong with the results of that. People could buy a smartphone with no data plan and have access to parts of the web.

But the downside to the FCC is the same one faced by the Indian regulators. Once you let Facebook do this then the genie is out of the bottle and there doesn’t seem to be any way that the FCC could stop other kinds of zero-rating.

The dilemma is that Facebook is not quite like other companies. I am sure that somehow this isn’t costing Facebook too much and they might even make a little money from the idea. But Mark Zuckerberg seems to be on an altruistic mission to bring broadband access to the whole world. He has already used this idea to bring free broadband to many millions, and his goal is to bring it to billions.

But even with the altruism, this has certainly been good for Facebook – they had 1 billion users in 2015 and are now are reported to have over 1.7 billion users. That’s a lot of people to advertise to and to gather data from, which is how Facebook makes its money.

And of course, no matter how altruistic Facebook might be, nobody would expect the same motives from other large companies like Comcast, AT&T or Verizon. One of the main fears that drove the creation of net neutrality is that we could end up with a web that is filtered by the biggest ISPs and that the openness of the web would be killed by deals like the one Facebook wants to do. The web brought to you by Comcast is not the same web that we know today – and I think it’s a web that we don’t want as a society. But if we take the first step and let a big company like Facebook filter the web, we could be headed down the path where almost all future web access is filtered.