Against the backdrop of a largely non proactive regulatory environment in Africa, it is consumers and not regulators that would spell the fate of Free Basics on the continent, writes Clifford Agugoesi
FACEBOOK’S internet.org strategy in Africa received a boost on Tuesday, May 10, as Airtel Nigeria partnered with Facebook to unveil the latter’s Free Basics intended to take basic Internet services to Nigerians. The event took place at the Ball Room of Eko Hotel & Towers, Victoria, Island, Lagos, thus heralding Africa’s most populous country to the league of African, Asia-Pacific and Latin American countries to host the service.
Free Basics is a product of the internet.org initiative which offers users free access to a range of data services, including the social network. It is a set of basic websites and services that introduce people to the Internet and demonstrate how it adds value to their lives, including but not limited to free health, education and finance-related information to people in developing countries so that they can make informed choices and decisions to improve their lives.
So far, Free Basics has launched in Angola (Movicel),Benin (MTN) Cape Verde (Unitel) Democratic Republic of the Congo (Airtel, Tigo) Gabon (Airtel) Ghana (Airtel) Guinea (Cellcom) Guinea-Bissau (MTN) Kenya (Airtel) Liberia (Cellcom) Malawi (Airtel & TNM) Mauritania (Mauritel) Mozambique (Mcel) Niger (Airtel) Rwanda (Airtel) Senegal (Tigo) Seychelles (Airtel) South Africa (Cell C) Tanzania (Tigo) Zambia (Airtel) and Nigeria(Airtel), with Bharti Airtel leading other telcos in terms of its footprint. The Nigerian launch followed the template designed for Airtel Africa by Bharti Airtel.
Organisations scale through partnerships, so the logical question to raise at this point is: what do Facebook and Bharti Airtel Uhope to achieve with their partnership on Free Basics? As per Facebook, an abridged Internet is the most practical and far-reaching way to reach billions who now have no access. Indeed, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg called the service “a bridge to the full Internet and digital equality.” Zuckerberg said elsewhere :“Connecting people across the African continent is critical to our mission. We’re going to keep pushing forward to develop new ways to bring people online until the whole world is connected.”
Chairman of Bharti Airtel, Bharti Mittal believes the number 3 spot his company currently occupies globally on the telcos chart by subscriber figures, is a major landmark in the journey of Airtel and underlines the strength of the telco’s business model and brand which he claims is loved by customers across 20 countries.
Mittal says Airtel “seamlessly manages global scale operations in diverse geographies and deliver the same world-class services to each customers, this perhaps is one of our biggest achievements.” In Mittal’s estimation, these world-class services would include Free Basics. Airtel Africa has not hidden the pride of place the Nigerian operations occupy in its overall continental strategy and Free Basics launch in the Nigerian market verifies this. As at December 2015, operator data released by the telecom sector regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, showed that Airtel Nigeria is placed third on the table with a subscriber figure of 32,268,301. MTN Nigeria leads with 61, 252, 387 while Globacom is placed second with 32, 999,384. A report by PwC estimates the number of mobile Internet subscribers to surge from 7.7 million in 2013 to 50.4 million in 2018. PwC forecasts Mobile Internet access revenue alone will add more than US$2.2 billion over the forecast period.
Before launching Free Basics in Nigeria, Airtel unleashed a number of data offerings into the marketplace trumpeting its intense interest in democratizing data tariff and becoming the provider of first choice for mobile Internet services in the country. And, with the Network’s slogan of “The Smartphone Network,” it is clear Airtel wants to leverage its relatively affordable and efficient data services to retain old customers and gain new ones and ultimately shore up its subscriber numbers and thereby narrow MTN Nigeria’s lead. If it achieves this, which is not impossible, the calculation is that the subscriber loyalty and stickiness it shall have gained over time, would translate into higher revenues in the Nigerian market and help Bharti Airtel absorb some of the offshore risks incurred in less profitable markets and help it sit comfortably on the number three position, as it pushes its global leadership aspirations, amidst pressure from Reliance Telecom which is readying to launch 4G LTE in India. So for Airtel, the launch of Free Basics syncs with its data strategy. Free Basics has launched in nearly 40 countries.
Both Facebook and Bharti Airtel may have meant well by forging this partnership, but analysts are beginning to read a different meaning to their intentions, if signals that have emerged since the Indian regulator TRAI’s ruling Free Basics is in violation of Net Neutrality. Irked analysts hold that Free Basics relies on a compact between Facebook and local telecom operators wherein the operators offer free access to a limited set of Internet sites, in the hopes of ultimately converting users to paying customers.
They extrapolate their views by saying Facebook gets more users, who in many cases, come to view Facebook as the gateway to the Internet and arguing that limiting the available sites prevents Free Basics users from consuming too much data, which would hurt the carriers.
But Free Basics has been designed so ultimately, operators are going to be able to make money,” said the executive leading Internet.org, Facebook’s broader effort to extend Internet access, Chris Daniels. “If it is a money-losing endeavor, they’re going to turn it off.”
Daniels is not alone. Facebook’s Free Basics “may be a worthy experiment” in a world where Internet access can be too expensive for some people, said a professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School, Jonathan Zittrain.
“Facebook wishes to choose what is ‘best’ for the end user—an erroneous supposition and one that violates the fundamental principle of openness in the Internet,” said a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped develop the Internet’s underlying network technology, Leonard Kleinrock.
In an article Facebook Free Basics: Nothing Free or Basic in this bargain of Privacy, Technology lawyer and Executive Director at SFLC.IN. , Mishi Chowdhary calls Free Basics a plot between Facebook and telcos which must not be allowed to continue. He argues: “This so-called philanthropy – which keeps coming back in different avatars – is nothing but an attempt to buy the de-anonymised packets of the Indian poor at a bulk rate, breaking their security in the process of destroying their privacy. Facebook has no alternative but to change the subject by confusing its users and spending crores on a disingenuous campaign. It makes up its own definitions of Network Neutrality, confuses by calling FreeBasics as digital equality.
“India is a very attractive market for Facebook owing to its vast population. North America and Europe are saturated, China does not allow Facebook, in such a scenario developing countries are where the meat is. When surveillance is the business model of businesses like Facebook, then they will do everything to offer Indians the right to send all their traffic, tied to their personal identifying data, through Facebook servers, thus allowing Facebook to spy on all the Internet traffic of tens of millions of Indian consumers. Have we asked why have Google, Twitter not joined the FreeBasics platform if it’s all about reaching millions of Indians as all these companies want to reach the maximum number of eyeballs?
What Facebook does not tell you is that there are many other successful models such as Grameenphone or “brought to you by” that give real access to the entire Internet and not a few websites chosen by Facebook such as FreeBasics does.”
As in India, Free Basics has become controversial in Africa. Critics opine Facebook’s approach is not the panacea to connect the unconnected on the continent, but simply confers the profit-driven, US-based company, gate-keeper powers to the next billion users coming online.
“It may be a short free access but it is definitely a long term control of how our people access, consume and use the Internet,” says the Cameroon-born founder of Soko Insight, a Canadian-based consumer research firm focused on Africa, Yannick Lefang. “Our leaders should understand that while “free” market is good, it’s only good when you can compete on the same playing field.”
As Quartz reports: ”Others say allowing internet.org to operate could create a two tiered online experience, where those with money can get full access to the internet while the poor are marginalized to a limited version. For them, the decision by TRAI to bar Free Basics could help catalyze a movement on the continent that could arrest such a dichotomy from emerging.
“While we do need to fast track connecting the unconnected, it must be applauded that advocates in India, and many others in these developing markets, are pushing for the conversation of the quality of the internet be considered,” the research lead at Nairobi’s the iHub, one of Kenya’s leading tech incubators, Nanjira Sambuli told Quartz. “Else, we risk having a connected world, but with tiered access.”
Lefang would like to see regulators on the continent follow the lead of their Indian counterparts and ban internet.org in Africa as well. “Our regulators should review the programme and come up with a framework that allows our people to get access to all the internet at an affordable cost,” he said. “Net neutrality is about accessing all the internet not free restricted internet.”
Currently some progressive and ambitious governments on the continent view the Internet as a development accelerator, so initiatives such as Free Basics that seek to boost adoption of data services are most likely going to have a smooth sail, especially against a predominantly lax regulatory environment. Ultimately, it is consumers not regulators that will spell the boom or the doom of Free Basics and not regulators.