Facebook may bring zero-rated “Free Basics” app to smartphones in US

This article originally appeared on ARS Technica.com by JON BRODKIN

Facebook is considering whether to launch a mobile application in the United States that would provide free access to a selection of websites, according to a Washington Post report today.

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Facebook has been talking to White House officials about how to roll out the Free Basics program in the US without inviting regulatory scrutiny, the article said, attributing the information to anonymous sources. The Free Basics application provides access to a variety of websites—including Facebook and Facebook Messenger—without counting against customers’ data caps, so Facebook would also need cooperation from US mobile operators.

“The US version of Free Basics would target low-income and rural Americans who cannot afford reliable, high-speed Internet at home or on smartphones,” the Post reported.

Free Basics is already available through carriers in more than 40 countries, most of which are in Africa. In total, Facebook says it has connected more than 25 million people. The service includes a mix of general Web browsing and more crucial services like job listings and access to medical information.

Free Basics was available in India until that country banned it in its new neutrality rules. Facebook is moving slowly in the US, holding private discussions with government officials in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of the India experience, where the application was launched and then banned, according to the Post. India’s telecom regulator prohibited arrangements that charge different amounts for access to different parts of the Internet.

The service is controversial among net neutrality proponents who say ISPs should not be able to pick and choose which services count against data caps because that gives unfair advantages to websites that are zero-rated. The Federal Communications Commission’s neutrality rules do not prevent US carriers from offering data cap exemptions, and all four major nationwide carriershave begun zero rating certain content. Among those, AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge companies for the ability to bypass customers’ data caps.

The FCC has been examining zero-rating since last year to determine whether any specific implementations interfere with the ability of consumers to reach content or the ability of content providers to reach consumers, but the group shows no signs of cracking down on the offerings.

Facebook has reportedly been talking to small, regional carriers about offering Free Basics in the US.

“Facebook has not attempted to strike a deal with national wireless carriers such as T-Mobile or AT&T, said the people familiar with the matter, over concerns that regulators may perceive the move as anti-competitive,” the Post reported. “Instead, it has pursued relationships with lesser-known carriers.”

Facebook has tried to limit criticism of Free Basics by opening the platform to third-party developers so that anyone can get their website added to the application’s stable of zero-rated services. Free Basics is optimized to work on slow network connections and old phones, so developers must meet certain guidelines such as not using “VoIP, video, file transfer, or photos larger than 200KB.”

Facebook did not confirm or deny plans to bring Free Basics to the US when contacted by Ars today. “While we have nothing to announce, Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we’re always exploring ways to do that, including in the United States,” a company spokesperson said.

Free Data Benefits Extend Beyond Corporate Profit

A recent op-ed by Mike Elgan, writing for Computer World, took aim at the profit motivation behind companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon for their free data offerings. Each company has been experimenting with new methods of providing internet connectivity or digital goods at no cost to consumers. Some praise companies offering free data options for creating innovative means for the digitally disconnected to get online. Others try to discount the offering as little more than an attempt by large corporations to increase their potential customer pool.

In truth, the promise and potential of free data programs cannot be reduced to this kind of binary thinking. At a time when wages remain stagnant, technology access is becoming a necessity, not just a nicety. As such, we must explore new avenues for reducing the digital divide.  In fact, it is incumbent upon us as a society to ensure that all people – regardless of income, ethnicity, or geography – have the tools to get online.

Free Data Offerings Help Close the Digital Divide

Based on data from the Federal Communications Commission, 55 million Americans still lack broadband access at home. Many of those people are members of low-income communities, people of color, elderly, disabled, or people living in rural communities. It is untenable that nearly 20% of America’s citizenry lags behind their digitally connected counterparts, all because they can’t get online like everyone else. But that is the reality we face as nation, a situation that free data options – regardless of their genesis – may be able to solve.

FCC Making Considered Review of Free Data Plans on a Case By Case Basis

There is no one-size-fits-all offering for free data programs.  Thus far, the FCC has been wise in sticking to a consumer friendly “watch and see approach” to free data plans, which a variety of companies – ranging from large, Fortune 100 entities, to small start-ups trying to establish a new niche – currently use. Two of the biggest barriers to broadband (high-speed Internet) adoption are cost and relevance/awareness. Consequently, free data offerings give people the opportunity to experiment with new products and services and familiarize themselves with new platforms without incurring the cost of such use.

In cases where companies are testing how free data offerings jibe with their business objectives, we, as consumers, get to witness a win-win situation.  Those most in need of digital connectivity are able to access and use new internet products and services free of charge, and the companies sponsoring that use can potentially expand their customer pool.

To learn more about the benefits of Free Data options, visit: http://www.mobilelikeme.com/issues/#free_data