Facebook’s Free Basics in India Shot Down, So What's Next?

The project was originally intended to provide basic Internet access to millions in India, but concerns arose about restrictions on which sites could be visited.

by Moulishree Srivastava, Mint, New Delhi / February 9, 2016
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg and Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi flickr/Narendra Modi
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg and Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modiflickr/Narendra Modi

(TNS) -- Almost about two months after social networking firm Facebook started an aggressive campaign to promote and gather support for its Free Basics initiative in India spending millions of dollars on advertising, all its efforts have turned futile. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on Monday banned Internet service providers from offering customers preferential or discriminatory tariffs to access certain content, over concerns that it will violate Net neutrality norms.

The decision came a year after Facebook tied up with Reliance Communications Ltd to roll out Free Basics services aimed at offering people without Internet free access to a handful of websites and a range of services through mobile phones.

However, a few hours after Trai’s decision, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company is not giving up on India.

In a blog on Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “While we are disappointed with today’s decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world.”

“Connecting India is an important goal we don’t give up on, because more than a billion people in India don’t have access to the internet....we are so committed to connecting them,” the 31-year-old said.

The Menlo Park, California-based firm plans to keep working until everyone has access to the Internet.

“Everyone in the world should have access to the Internet. That’s why we launched Internet.org with so many different initiatives—including extending networks through solar-powered planes, satellites and lasers, providing free data access through Free Basics, reducing data use through apps, and empowering local entrepreneurs though Express Wi-Fi,” wrote Zuckerberg.

“Today India’s telecom regulator decided to restrict programs that provide free access to data. This restricts one of Internet.org’s initiatives, Free Basics, as well as programs by other organisations that provide free access to data,” he said.

Zuckerberg said not only Free Basics, but other programs under Internet.org are changing people’s lives globally. “More than 19 million people in 38 countries have been connected through our different programs,” he said.

In July last year, the company completed and tested its solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle, Aquila, which aims to provide Internet connectivity in remote locations across the world using laser and radio frequency technology.

However, in India, the company has had it rough.

It started when Trai released a consultation paper on differential pricing in April last year, followed by the launch of Airtel Zero, a marketing platform that allows customers to access mobile applications for free but charges the application providers, by telecom operator Bharti Airtel Ltd. About 10 days after the launch of Airtel Zero, online retailer Flipkart, which partnered with Airtel, walked away from the deal. This was followed by travel portal Cleartrip.com and media companies Times Group and NDTV pulling out of Internet.org, a partnership between Reliance Communications and Facebook.

The debate turned vociferous after Trai came out with the second consultation paper on the same and Facebook rolled out a massive campaign across media, urging people to support its Free Basics platform. Late last year, Zuckerberg wrote an opinion piece on “Free Basics protects net neutrality” in The Times Of India.

Early this year, Facebook got involved in an exchange of letters with Trai over users sending in support mails to Trai for Free Basics instead of commenting on the regulator’s differential pricing consultation paper that it put out on 9 December. Trai wrote back to Facebook to reach out to its users, who supported its Free Basics service through the social network’s platform, so as to advise them to send comments to the specific questions raised in the regulator’s consultation paper. While Facebook reached out to those who supported Free Basics by sending automated mails through Facebook, it could not reach out to individual users who gave missed calls to support the same. A few days later, Trai slammed the company for not passing on its message to all those who sent responses on the consultation paper.

According to Facebook, more than 11 million people sent emails supporting Free Basics. After Trai’s request to send in appropriate responses, the company said about 1.4 million people submitted revised comments and overall 5.2 million people filled more detailed comments with the message specifically addressing the four questions put out in the consultation paper, including whether telecom operators should be allowed to offer different services at different price points and models that can be implemented to achieve this.

Trai chairman R.S. Sharma said that the authority doesn’t have problem with companies providing free Internet to all, but anything that is on the Internet cannot be priced discriminately based on source, destination, content and applications.

©2016 the Mint (New Delhi) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.