The Free Basics debate in India has reached a crescendo and there is lot of confusion surrounding the service launched by FaceBook in association with Reliance and the consultation paper which TRAI has released on “Net Neutrality”.
It appears that the debate of Free Basics and Net Neutrality getting inter connected and hence the public are finding it difficult whether they should respond to the TRAI consultation paper or not.
It is obvious that Free Basics is an advantage to Reliance and therefore could be a disadvantage to other mobile service operators. Hence there is a business interest involved in opposing the Free Basics which needs to be factored into the analysis.
As far as the consumer is concerned, Free Basics brings to them certain content services for which data is not charged by the mobile service provider.
The user may be a farmer who is looking for some agricultural information or a cricket enthusiast who is looking for CrickInfo scores or a student who is browsing through some academic information.
It is true that at the same time when content offered through Freebasics comes without data charge, similar content outside the platform of Free Basics is charged. to that extent, the “free service” is more attractive than the “Paid service”. Hence some consider this as affecting “Net Neutrality”.
Some time back, some service providers tried to introduce schemes whereby they wanted to give certain premium services free on the mobile by collecting money directly from the beneficiary companies. This was opposed and the proposal was dropped under the consideration of “Net Neutrality”.
The Free Basics however has structured its services differently. Firstly it has presented itself as a “Platform” and any content provider may apply to be part of the platform provided he follows certain content guidelines. As long as this is not discriminatory, there should be no grounds to object. It appears that the present guidelines may favour basic content providers and not fancy websites and e-commerce sites and this is an acceptable criteria so that the data element is kept thin.
As long as there is no discriminatory exclusions, the system may be considered as equitable. In India we are used to “Reservations” of various kinds. Activists who worry about “neutrality” may also address if there is neutrality in the provision of basic services in the physical world, before raising their voice on the free internet that may become available to a limited extent as a result of Free basics.
It is understood that the Freebasics content would pass through a proxy server of FaceBook which will collect some user data which is the value proposition for FaceBook. Though some privacy concerns can be raised on this account, the user himself may not be much worried on this account. Reliance may have increased clientele and also some reverse benefit from Face Book to offset the cost of data that it foregoes. This is a business strategy that is not objectionable per-se.
The low income mobile user may look at this as an opportunity to get some free Internet on the mobile just as the concept of ad supported free internet which was prevalent in the early eighties.
Today every business operator including Google collects information from users and uses it to its business advantage. Some of them may throw back free services to attract more customers since the value of data that the users bring in more than offsets the cost of the service itself. Even Gmail may be running on this principle.
Hence blaming FreeBasics only for the fact that it is making the life of the business rivals more difficult is perhaps incorrect.
On the otherhand, the rival telecom providers can consider collecting their own content packages and deliver them free through their services so that they donot lose their business. Nothing prevents Airtel from providing cricbuzz scores free or Telegram service free of data charges to counter Freebasics-Reliance offers.
The competition may actually benefit the general consumer.
What TRAI has to ensure however is that
a) Free Basics platform is open to all under a public technology based guideline
b) No content provider is discriminated against arbitrarily
c) Other service providers may be encouraged to introduce content packages with their own set of content providers
The net effect of the above is that basic information available on the internet may become available on the mobile without specific data charge. All other services will come with data charge like a premium service.
This may be good to reduce the digital divide and benefit the society in the long run.