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How To Make The Internet Free In Developing Countries

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When most Americans hear the term “net neutrality,” their eyes begin to glaze over, confusion sets in, and an almost instant boredom takes over. But in an emerging market like India, net neutrality means everything.

Take Priya, a 22-year-old woman who lives in Bangalore, India. Like many of us here in the U.S., her Android smartphone (which cost $90) is never far from reach. Like me, she accesses Facebook on her way to work, connecting with her friends to plan their weekly group dinner. And like you, she plods through a dozen other apps to watch sports, read the news, or enjoy pictures of her family.

But, unlike people in the West who have the luxury of paying a flat fee to get unlimited Internet on their phone, or have Wi-Fi hotspots to hop on, Priya’s biggest challenge is figuring out which of these apps she can use, and for how long. Priya, like the other 90 percent of mobile subscribers in India, is on an expensive pay-as-you go data plan.

One of the main barriers to connectivity in India is that the pure out-of-pocket cost of data can be crippling. Those making minimum wage would need to work 17 hours just to afford a 500MB mobile data plan; it can cost up to three hours of work to pay for just a single hour of connectivity. (In comparison, in the U.S., the cost for unlimited data per month on some carriers is just a little over three hours of minimum wage work.)

This is why companies like Facebook, with its Internet.org platform, and Airtel Zero, are attempting to bridge this cost gap for customers in India and other developing countries with free access to apps. Though their motivations are noble, there are limitations to their models that challenge net neutrality — don’t let your eyes glaze over here — the principle that the Internet should contain free and equal content.

The debate over net neutrality in India and other developing countries is much more complicated than it is in the United States. The fight for maintaining net neutrality in the U.S., for example, has recently been tied to Comcast’s attempt to control the speed at which people can stream content from Netflix or other streaming services. In this instance, it means your movie might load a little slower.

In India, it’s not a question of speed, where one app or a movie might load a little slower than another (which raises its own massive ethical issues in the U.S.), but it’s a question of access altogether. By using platforms like Internet.org or Airtel Zero, some of the Internet is offered, and some is not. Low data versions of apps are offered, for example, and some are off the list altogether.

But people like Priya want to do more than just browse Wikipedia and talk to their friends on Facebook — they want to watch a video on YouTube and download a new local app for file sharing. They want the entire Internet experience, not a sliver of it. (Whether one app is slower than another is pretty low on the priority list.)

Internet.org and Airtel Zero say their mission is to bring the Internet to those who would otherwise not have access to it, which is certainly altruistic. Yet while their services are giving many people their first opportunity to get online, it’s not without implications.

For example, Internet.org is open to any third-party apps as long as they don’t consume a ton of data and the app developers meet Facebook’s guidelines for participation. And Airtel Zero allows people to use approved apps for free, with normal data charges applied to all other apps.

The backlash in recent weeks for both of these efforts has been the argument that such situations will deter someone from using smaller, local apps because the cost is just too great. Why use a new budding startup’s social platform at a price, when you can use Facebook for free? This means that the environment for an open and fair Internet that treats all content the same does not exist.

The tricky thing with bringing the Internet to the next billion is that someone has to pay for those pipes and wires and drones to transport the bits to these developing countries. It’s not going to be the Indian government. And if it’s Facebook, Google or a large operator like Airtel, there’s obviously going to be a financial incentive for them tied in with their altruistic efforts.

So this leads to the question, what other solutions are there?

The best way to bring free and open Internet to markets like India is with an ad-supported model. This is the way most media works today, and goes back to the beginning of television and radio. When TV and radio first came out, free consumption of those mediums by consumers was made possible by advertisers. (If you look around this webpage, you’ll see that is still true today for most media.) So, what if advertisers made it possible to access apps and online content for free without walls or restrictions?

Mozilla’s partnership with Grameenphone in Bangladesh, and with Orange in multiple African countries, are both examples of joint efforts to provide non-tiered access to the open Internet through advertising.

The idea with Grameenphone in Bangladesh is that users can receive 20MB of unrestricted data per day after watching a short ad in the phone’s marketplace. With Orange, consumers in specific parts of Africa who buy a Mozilla smartphone get unlimited free Internet for a set period of time bundled along with their phone purchase. Both efforts are geared toward the goal of drumming up sales for Mozilla’s phones, in return for subsidizing free unrestricted Internet access.

Another example in India was a very successful campaign from Pepsi with FreeCharge (a startup that was recently acquired by Snapdeal in the largest buyout so far in the Indian consumer Internet sector) where free Internet was offered in return for purchasing soda. It worked like this: you bought a bottle of Pepsi, typed the code inside the cap into your phone, and you got ten rupees worth of free connectivity. FreeCharge didn’t restrict what you could see or access with those ten rupees; that was up to the consumer.

Right now $219 billion is being spent on advertising in emerging markets, but over 90 percent is spent on traditional ad models, like billboards and television ads. Surely there are enough hungry brands out there that will pay to get in front of these newly connected populations (and offset data costs for accessing the Internet) if the tech community builds the platforms for them to do so. And then, just like free ad-supported cable television, or free ad-supported radio, I truly believe that advertising can be the gateway to the Internet, rather than the gatekeeper.

Featured Image: Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock