Are Free Data Plans The Key To Closing The Digital Divide?

This article originally appeared on NewOne.

As a frugal consumer (and who isn’t these days), I remain on the lookout for coupons or sales that will stretch my dollars. Deals and deal-making have been, in fact, an integral part of American culture, shaping our shopping habits probably well before Coca-Cola gave away its first coupon in the late 1800s offering customers a free glass of Coke at the local pharmacy.

Who could object to these kinds of promotions in which everyone — companies and consumers — win? It turns out quite a few — at least in the arcane arena of telecommunications regulation in Washington, D.C. And they are largely corporate lobbyists and activists who claim to protect the public’s interest, even as their positions defy common sense.

At issue for consumers is whether the Federal Communications Commission will succumb to pressure from online activists and curb free data plans offered by AT&T, T-Mobile, and others.

Like other consumer perks (from free coffee refills to toll-free calling), the idea behind free-data plans is straightforward enough. Companies that are seeking more visitors to their web sites simply cover the data costs (to carriers) that consumers would otherwise incur visiting those sites. But given the increasingly important role the Internet plays in modern life, these free-data programs provide more social value than run-of-the-mill promotions.

For low-income communities, particularly in cities and rural towns, access to the Internet remains costly and difficult, leaving too many individuals on the losing side of the digital divide.

Historically, public resources in those communities, particularly those comprising African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, have little to no internet service.

In today’s digital age, though, the Internet can help lessen the burdensome legacy of such neglect by serving as a gateway to new opportunities for individuals to improve their lives.

At this very moment, millions of Americans are relying on the Internet to enhance their education, catch up on current events, find employment, and even check their health records, among countless other uses. In many cases, this Internet access is made possible because of free data plans and the applications on mobile devices, which are included among the abundance of content made free for consumers to use.

For African-Americans and Hispanics — two groups that strongly prefer using mobile devices to access the Internet — the benefits of the free-data plans are particularly clear.

There’s great irony in the claims being made by critics of free-data plans. Netroots activists, as these critics are known, say such plans give big companies an advantage over small ones and thereby violate the principle of net neutrality, a policy the FCC adopted to ensure Internet service providers did not give certain content priority over other content, all in the name of promoting an open Internet.

But in their championing of a principle, they may do actual harm to people on the economic margins who have experienced the loss of their mobile phone service at some point precisely as a result of not being able to afford the cost of data usage overruns.

There is, of course, no guarantee that free data plans, sometimes called zero data plans, mean that consumers will use that extra data in ways that are productive and worthy. The high-school drop-out may well be watching a movie instead of studying online for the GED. But who’s to judge? And who knows. Maybe it ends up being a motivator to pursue higher education. Or maybe a consumer frittered away his or her free data on entertainment but still has data from his or her own paid plan to devote to more serious pursuits.

Note the findings in the recent report by the Pew Research Center, Home Broadband 2015: “[T]hose without home high-speed service are much more likely than in the past to say that lacking a home subscription is a major disadvantage when it comes to accessing government services, searching for employment, following the news, learning new things, or getting health information.”

And the subtitle of the report is: “The share of Americans with broadband at home has plateaued, and more rely on their smartphones for online access.”

For the moment, smartphones are the Internet play. Is it fair for those folks to be put at risk of losing their primary means of online access over a political dispute between Washington lobbyists? Of course not.

My reading of the Pew report is that as Americans increase their Internet usage, they gain a better appreciation of its potential to improve their lives.

To its credit, the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, an organization that has long been at the forefront of diversity policy initiatives and consumer advocacy, has voiced its opposition to terminating free data plans.

On this issue, the consequences of coming up short are far too great. Preserving free data plans is about much more than getting access to a few websites — it’s about opening the door to a future in which all, not just the privileged, can access the vital information we seek. An unfavorable outcome from an FCC ruling could force millions living in underrepresented communities to face yet another barrier to closing the digital divide.

Khalil Abdullah is a writer, editor and business consultant. A former national editor and reporter for New America Media, and a former managing editor for the Washington Afro-American, Khalil staffed the Telecommunications and Energy Committee of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators from 1995 to 2000 when he served as Communications Director. He was NBCSL’s executive director from 2000 to 2003.

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