Can we use zero-rating to connect the world?

Since the issue of net neutrality exploded when the Federal Communications Commission in the US voted to repeal it, many have critiqued zero-rating as a violation of this principle. But some have also argued that zero-rating is a step forward in giving full internet access to everyone. Can we use zero-rating for good?

The practice of giving free, unlimited access to certain websites and web services is called zero-rating. T-Mobile introduced a broadband plan with unlimited access to music and video from huge media brands such as Netflix, HBOGo and ESPN. If you can’t afford to pay internet service providers (ISPs) to include you in these “fast lanes”, your content would fade into oblivion. Critics argue that this practice potentially undermines the principles of net neutrality by separating the “haves” and “have-nots” in the internet. While there may be some truth to this, there are also some good use cases for zero-rating.

Zero-rating is a useful tool for the developing world. Mobile internet remains unaffordable for most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. While prices for mobile broadband are decreasing globally, affordability remains to be a problem especially for the lowest 20% of earners in the least developed countries (LDCs). For the average person in Colombia and the Philippines, 1GB of data costs around 2% of average monthly income. However, the bottom of the pyramid have to pay 11% and 6% of their monthly income, respectively, for 1GB of mobile data.

This is why some proponents are pushing for zero-rating — to give people in emerging markets access to the internet, even just partially. Take for example Wikipedia Zero. It was built to give people in LDCs free access to Wikipedia via zero-rating. It aimed to remove the barrier of high mobile data costs. The share and transfer of knowledge greatly benefited people globally.

Internet.org by Facebook also had a great vision of giving free internet to the developing world. It was launched in India, the Philippines, and Ghana among 63 other emerging markets. FreeBasics, the app launched by Internet.org, was a “lite” version of Facebook. Users could freely access certain websites including news, games, videos and more. Initial feedback was great as it was supposed to connect the unconnected to the internet.

Both FreeBasics and Wikipedia Zero have had criticisms thrown at them for violating net neutrality principles. Facebook and Wikipedia zero-rated certain content and chose telco partners to offer “free internet”. Critics argued that the end result, however, does not actually give access to the full internet, instead it will just give these websites more users. For millions of users, it will give the illusion that Facebook and Wikipedia are synonymous to the full internet.

However, the question remains: is some internet better than no internet? Would people in emerging economies be better off buying expensive broadband plans than having free, partial access to the internet just so ISPs can maintain net neutrality?

There are still many kinks in the zero-rating model but ultimately, it can be a force for good. Zero-rating drastically lowers the cost of internet for many people and having more people being able to participate in the internet can only be good. According to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), connecting everyone to the internet would add $6.7 trillion to the world economy. If we give 4.1 billion people access to the internet, it would aid in lifting around 500 million people out of poverty.

PwC argues that in the long run, the zero-rating approach will be worth it. Giving partial access is just the stepping stone to connecting the entire world. Full access to the internet is the ultimate goal and to get there, zero-rating may just be the tool we need.