App gives free access to Facebook, Google and other services on Zambia’s Airtel network, at the expense of net neutrality
Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which aims to get the Internet to people in developing nations, has launched a mobile app Zambia which gives free access to some Internet services. The scheme has been praised – while also facing criticism for creating a monopoly portal and ignoring the principle of net neutrality.
Internet.org was launched in August 2013 with the goal of “making the Internet available to every person on earth”, and has launched its Facebook app first in Zambia – a country whose 14 million people rely on mobile phones but have very limited Internet access. Internet.org’s app (announced here) lets customers on the Airtel network use certain Internet services for free, including Facebook, Google search, Wikipedia, weather, a jobs portal and information services.
Free as in speech?
“Over 85 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with existing cellular coverage, yet only about 30 percent of the total population accesses the internet,” says Guy Rosen, Internet.org’s product director. “Affordability and awareness are significant barriers to internet adoption for many and today we are introducing the Internet.org app to make the internet accessible to more people by providing a set of free basic services.”
Zambia is a good place to start, as only around 18 percent (2.6 million) of its population has access to the Internet, according to Zambia’s TechTrends news site. Internet users are virtually all on mobiles however: fixed lines are in short supply, while Zambia has about 10 million mobile phone subscribers. Taking into account phone-sharing and multiple SIMs, that’s reckoned to cover about 77 percent of the population.
The deal works by “zero-rating” any data services that are carried through the app, and has been made possible because Internet.org has persuaded the local operator, Bharti Airtel, to donate this bandwidth. Airtel won’t be paid by Facebook or Internet.org for the data used – but is taking part in the expectation that the “on-ramp” will boost its long-term business.
TechTrends has been critical of Airtel’s creaking service in the past, but welcomed the move: “This is a huge development seeing as internet access is becoming a necessity for people from all walks of life in Zambia.”
Others have pointed out that, while the deal does provide much needed access, it does so by jettisoning the principle of net neutrality. Facebook and other included services get preferential treatment, being carried for free, and have an ultimate advantage over other offerings: “Zero-rating entrenches powerful monopolies, hurts competition and potentially slows down innovation,” warns David Meyer on GigaOm.
As well as Facebook, Messenger and Google Search, the app gives free access toWikipedia, AccuWeather, eZeLibrary, women’s rights app WRAPP, Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action Zambia and other services.
Facebook’s Internet.org project is also looking at the technology to deliver services, and in particular using drones and satellites. The group has a lab set up by Ericsson to simulate network conditions in remote parts of the world, and develop solutions. The Internet.org group includes network and phone vendors along with Facebook. The other founders are Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm, Opera and Mediatek.