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Zero-rated internet services are much needed in developing economies

Tuesday March 15 2016

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Many readers of this column may not know it, but there is free Internet access in Kenya. 

You did not know that because you belong to a class of privileged users who can afford to pay for Internet service, however expensive it may be.

There is another category of Kenyans who do not enjoy the privilege of being able to pay for their monthly Internet access.  

All the Telco operators in Kenya target this group by offering free Internet service to them in one form or another – with the hope that they will eventually migrate onto the fully paid-up Internet.

They do this by exempting certain Internet websites from running down your Internet bundles in what has come to be known as "zero-rated" services. 

Facebook, one of the world’s most popular content sites, has come to exemplify zero-rated services.

If you are an Airtel subscriber, you can access Facebook content for free from your mobile phone by visiting Free Basics. This site offers rudimentary elements of Facebook at no charge, bundled together with a couple of other pre-selected free websites.

Orange, Equitel and Safaricom also have similar promotions that allow subscribers to access certain Internet content for free or at highly discounted rates. 

Is free access to Internet a blessing or a curse? Well, there are very strong views for and against this free-content arrangement. Those against it believe that it should not be encouraged since it enables telecommunications operators and content providers to be gate-keepers on the Internet. 

In other words, by playing the "free" card, operators begin to influence what content the average user can access or not access on the Internet. They abrogate themselves the power to decide what is freely accessible and what is not – with serious consequences on the Internet ecosystem.

Free access to Internet content, the argument goes, is simply a way of enslaving poor subscribers in developing economies onto a pre-selected and restricted Internet experience.

For example, subscribers to the "free" Internet could end up thinking that the Internet is made up of just one type of content called Facebook, Wikipedia or whatever else the telecommunications operator and the content provider decide to offer for free.

Those against zero-rated services also argue that the act of zero-rating preselected content automatically disenfranchises competition, since users will have less motivation to access competing similar services at a fee.

For example, assuming there was an emerging and local equivalent of Facebook in Kenya, such a local content provider would not be able to compete effectively for the online audience, if the global Facebook is freely accessible while the local one is not. Such arguments made the Indian communications regulator ban zero-rated services in India.

However, other analysts think that this is a case of being too heavy-handed for an economy that still has millions of its citizens waiting to get online.

Zero-rated services could be beneficial, particularly in emerging economies. Telecommunications operators argue that free content is actually not limited to Facebook, but is open to any content provider wishing to participate in the arrangement, and that competing content providers are therefore not being disenfranchised or disadvantaged. 

Furthermore, the stripped-down nature of the free content is designed to act as an incubation stage, where first-time users learn basic Internet skills at no charge, before they eventually get the confidence and motivation to use full-blown, paid-up Internet versions.

It is better, after all, to have some free Internet content than to have absolutely no Internet access – which would be the case for a majority of users in emerging economies, where Internet access costs are a prohibitive factor.

The Communications Authority of Kenya and the ICT Cabinet secretary seem to prefer to watch the evolving space and are unlikely to make extreme interventions such as those the Indian market has made.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @jwalu