Who doesn’t want free internet? No hands go up.
But “free” may not always be a good thing.
For months now, Facebook has been talking to both the U.S. government and wireless carriers about offering free internet. However, not everyone is on board.
According to The Washington Post, the idea is to roll out a U.S.-based program called Free Basics, which would target low-income and rural Americans unable to afford high-speed internet either through their home or their smartphone device. While the app won’t pay for the user’s data, it allows for stretching the plans by offering certain free online-related resources, including information focused on news, health and employment.
Free Basics has already rolled out in 49 countries. The stateside conversation has been going on with small and rural cell service providers, as well as at the White House with President Obama.
Sure, some think this is a win, especially for those who have had to do without. And also for Mark Zuckerberg, who would ultimately collect more users to his platform.
“Facebook’s Free Basics is yet another way competitive carriers can improve the lives of rural Americans,” the Competitive Carriers Association said, “by increasing access to and adoption of broadband, and a partnership with Facebook would certainly further CCA’s mission.”
But the naysayers are hinging on an older, ongoing debate over what the internet looks like down the line. Some say, while this may allow for more connectivity, it may be more favorable to only the companies that have the expertise and financial means to participate.
The issue leans on the term “zero-rating” and would bring the issue stateside, where it’s already been seen in other countries. The Federal Communications Commission has been called in to regulate zero-rating under net neutrality rules. It agrees that the online marketplace is not fair to all players.
But the conversations around any U.S. rollout are mum.
Facebook has nothing to announce, according to a company statement. “Facebook’s mission is to connect the world, and we’re always exploring ways to do that, including in the United States.”
Zuckerberg’s platform also said it wants Free Basics to be seen as favorable, especially after issues that arose with its implementation in India. In February, Indian regulators banned Free Basics after it was viewed to have been handpicking some related companies and disadvantaging others. After that, Free Basics has evolved somewhat but, so far, still isn’t seen as a viable idea.
To date, Facebook has not made any deal with major U.S. wireless carriers, but experts say it has been in talks with smaller ones.
Regardless, some experts and advocates still maintain that Free Basics could be helpful in closing the economic gap related to connectivity. According to a Pew Research study, 48 percent of Americans who get online solely via smartphone have to cancel or suspend the service because it’s too expensive. Thus, programs like Free Basics would allow better access to everyday internet needs but also education, financial information and health care.
Facebook said that wireless carriers do have an incentive to get on board with Free Basics as it may allow for converting those users into customers in the long run.