Free Basics: The best way to improve Americans’ internet access?

Millions of Americans lack reliable internet access. Facebook says its Free Basics program is the answer. But critics worry about the implications for net neutrality.

Mahesh Kumar A./AP/File
Indian students gather for a protest against Facebook’s 'Free Basics' in Hyderabad, India, in December. Facebook hopes to bring the service – banned by Indian regulators – to the United States.

In the wake of controversy abroad, Facebook hopes to introduce its Free Basics app to underserved communities at home.

The app, which offers users access to certain internet services for free, would target low-income and rural Americans for whom reliable, high-speed internet is currently out of reach. Facebook is seeking partnerships with wireless carriers to “zero-rate” these services, allowing users to stretch their data plans out for longer. The company hopes the White House will be supportive of adding the United States to the 49 countries who already have access to Free Basics.

For advocates, the app is a much-needed tool to connect millions more Americans to the internet in an increasingly electronic world. But others are concerned about implications for net neutrality and the future of the service. India, the world’s third largest internet market, banned the app in February, adding further fuel to the debate.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring that here, because we face many of the same challenges in historically disadvantaged communities” as developing countries do, Nicol Turner-Lee, a vice president at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, told the Washington Post.

A 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that rural America and tribal lands were lagging behind in broadband provision. Fully two-thirds of those in US territories do not have adequate fixed broadband service, the report found. The FCC has not yet set a benchmark for the quality of mobile internet service, due to insufficient data.

But it seems likely that the commission, which is bound by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to take “immediate action” if advanced telecommunications capabilities are not available to all Americans, is considering ways to make progress. The FCC does have the Connect America Fund, which “subsidizes some of the initial costs of [internet service providers] entering rural markets, helping to bridge the divide in broadband access,” according to the Brookings Institution think-tank.

Free Basics may be a way to boost Americans’ connectivity. But similar services, intended to improve the access of low-income families, have had limited success. Internet Essentials, offered by Comcast, is one such program.

"I had [Internet Essentials] because [my children] had assignments that they needed the computer for," one Colorado parent told researchers from Rutgers University and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. "I hated it. It wasn't working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn’t get anything done. We had it for almost a year. I just got rid of it. I was paying $10 (a month) to not use it."

T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans come with unlimited video streaming and other ways to stretch data caps. Critics argue that having certain websites that users can access data-free violates net neutrality because it pushes users to access some sites and blocks them from accessing others. Regulators have expressed some concerns about such practices, while endorsing the expansion of internet access.

In India, a letter sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have spurred the country to ban Free Basics. “The Internet is not a marketplace where government licensed access providers are allowed to act as gatekeepers choosing what the citizens of our nation can access and on what terms; it is a neutral platform,” a group of more than 500 startups and venture capitalists wrote.

Learning from this, Facebook now allows all websites that refrain from using data-intensive video or images to participate in Free Basics. That could make Free Basics a valuable tool in connecting Americans with government education, financial, and healthcare services, which are increasingly available online, supporters say.

But the availability of Free Basics may still be skewed toward organizations who can afford to modify their websites in line with Facebook’s rules, opponents worry. And questions remain about whether the company would, in the future, demand payment from mobile carriers that offer Free Basics.

In an interesting twist, the portal may or may not actually save low-income families money.

“More than 35 operators have launched Free Basics and 15 million people have come online. And half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full internet within 30 days,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Times of India editorial in 2015.

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