Facebook has recently launched an initiative to give the people of India free access to a number of internet services. Unfortunately, before it could really get started, it has already been halted. This comes after the telecoms regulator asked them to do this. The initiative, known as ‘Free Basics,’ was to be a partnership between Facebook and one of India’s mobile networks.
Through the initiative, it is hoped that data fees, which are currently very expensive in the country of India, will start to drop. Unfortunately, according to regulators, it goes against to the net neutrality principles that are law in India. The net neutrality principles stop data providers from favoring one online service over another by offering faster or cheaper access.
The scheme was supported by the Reliance Communications mobile network. They have affirmed that they have put the project on hold, in line with the demands of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).
As directed by Trai, the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they (Trai) consider all details and convey a specific approval.
The spokesperson for Reliance Communications also stated that the only information they had received from Trai was that they wanted to perform a closer examination of the ‘details and intrinsics’ that are involved in the proposed Facebook scheme. This information came from the Times of India newspaper.
The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content. Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen.
Facebook has not thrown in the gauntlet and hopes that the scheme will still be given the go-ahead. They will also continue to lobby for this in the meantime. Facebook has also released a statement in relation to this.
We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected.
Internet.org was launched as a Facebook partnership with a range of mobile providers across the globe, with a focus on emerging economies. It was launched in 2013 in an effort to enable more people to benefit from the internet. It is through this that the Free Basics app was developed, which enables access to select services. These include local news papers, local weather forecasts, Wikipedia and a range of health services.
Some 36 different countries can now access Free Basics and it is estimated that some 15 million people are now online thanks to this initiative. The scheme was first offered in India by Reliance in February of this year, and it was rolled out to all subscribers in November. However, it has had to face heavy criticism from the word go.
According to small Indian startup companies, they were placed at a disadvantage because they could not use the service as well. Following their complaints, a number of services that could be accessed through Free Basics, including Cleartrip and Times Group, pulled out of the scheme as they felt that there was no opportunity for a level playing field under the scheme.
When this happened, Facebook said more services would be able to join as well, but Mark Zuckerberg did quickly add that offering all of the internet at no cost was simply not a sustainable option. The idea was that people who would use some of the restricted services would be willing to pay more so that they could access all of the internet. Interestingly, Facebook is now also suddenly advertising in traditional media, which includes full page newspaper advertisements and billboards.
In India, people who access Facebook are now immediately prompted to contact Trai in order to inform them that they want the Free Basics scheme to remain in place. A net neutrality hearing will be held in January.