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Facebook Responds To Outlook's Questions On Free Basics

Facebook sent in its responses to an Outlook questionnaire after the story (A Megacorp's Basic Instinct, February 8) went to press...

Facebook Responds To Outlook's Questions On Free Basics

Has Facebook responded to TRAI's January 18 letter? What is Facebook's argument on TRAI's assertion that the responses sent by Facebook were orchestrated?

In response to TRAI's consultation paper, Facebook enabled 11.7 million citizens to file comments in support of the Free Basics program, asking TRAI to allow the program under any rules adopted.  TRAI requested that we reach out to these Free Basics supporters to ask them to also answer the specific questions raised by the consultative paper.  We are not aware of a similar request having been made to any of the other commenters who did not answer these specific questions.  Nevertheless, we attempted to cooperate with their request.  While we did not include all of the specific language drafted by TRAI, we did deliver a request for additional information and included in the draft email the exact language from the four specific questions posed in the consultation paper.  More than 1.4 million Indians responded by submitting revised comments that addressed these questions.

Many experts are of the view that through Free Basics, Facebook is trying to create a walled garden which will restrict Internet access by limiting the number of websites accessible. What is Facebook's response to this?

Free Basics is open to any developer or service, not exclusively provided through any operator, and free for people to use. We initially launched Internet.org in 2014 with a limited set of free basics services in each country. After listening to feedback, we changed the name from Internet.org to Free Basics to more accurately represent the product, and opened the service to any developer and application that meets basic technical requirements. We now have more than 350 services on the platform worldwide.

And we’ve found that when people have access to free basic internet services, they quickly move onto the full internet. More than half of the people who come online through Free Basics are paying for data and accessing the internet within the first 30 days. In India, more than 40% of users coming online for the first time with Free Basics pay for access to the full Internet within 30 days of joining Free Basics. Only a very small percentage of people — in the single digits — remain on Free Basicss. This clearly demonstrates that Free Basics is an effective strategy for bringing people online.

What is Facebook's stand on differential pricing and schemes like zero rating that were introduced by some telecom operators in India?

Differential pricing arrangements have been allowed to flourish in India. And they are working here, as they are working in many other countries around the world.  With a track record of increasing Internet access and use, differential pricing programs should be recognized as tools for economic development and encouraged within a flexible regulatory environment. Consistent with the approach taken in most other countries around the world, Facebook believes that differential pricing plans should be evaluated case by case, based on a number of criteria. That evaluation shows that many categories of differential pricing offer unalloyed benefits in expanding digital literacy, boosting Internet adoption, and promoting content diversity all at once. This is especially true of zero rating, and particularly non-commercial zero rating programs where neither the consumer nor the content provider pays the carrier for data carriage. Differential pricing, and especially zero rating, should remain an essential tool in the work towards Digital India and getting the one billion unconnected Indians online.

What is Facebook's strategy to take Internet to the masses through Free Basics when many areas in India still lack proper and robust Internet coverage?

We see three key barriers to achieving connectivity at the scale India requires. The first is an infrastructure challenge. We need reliable and extensive networks. The second is affordability. Many people who have access to the Internet can't afford to pay for it. The third, and potentially the greatest hurdle, is the awareness and relevance challenge. Data, unlike voice, is not intuitive.  The majority of people who are first time users of the internet are not sure what the internet is or what they can use it for.

Internet.org is our effort to tackle these challenges and connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access.To help tackle the infrastructure barrier we are exploring ways to deliver the internet to remote parts of the world where the infrastructure to connect doesn’t yet exist. This includes new internet delivery platforms such as solar powered planes, satellites and free-space optics. We have also announced Express Wi-Fi, a program which was inspired by India and is being tested here in India to empower a local Indian entrepreneurs to purchase an inexpensive set of hardware and start a business to offer Internet access to their town or region.  This model has worked in India before when local entrepreneurs were encouraged to start local businesses when the cable and satellite television technologies came to India. Our pilots are currently running in the state of Uttarakhand and we are expanding this to other states and regions in India.

To help overcome the awareness and affordability barrier, we have Free Basics. Free Basics offers people access to online services without data charges. It gives people who can’t afford to purchase data, or don’t understand the value of it, a way to experience for the first time what the Internet can offer. It is designed to promote an internet access model that is free to all and non-exclusive in the following ways:

  • Non-exclusive: it is available to all operators on the same terms and conditions.
  • Open and non-discriminatory: any developer can participate as long as it meets our bandwidth efficiency technical criteria. This criteria is a simple specification, openly published and has been designed for services that can be used on low-end features phones. We are also happy to have a third party audit how we apply the criteria. To date not a single app that has applied has been rejected from participation in Free Basics. We apply the same criteria to Facebook and a lite version of Facebook without video and complying with other efficiency criteria is available on Free Basics.
  • Free to both users and content owners: no user is charged for accessing the content available on Free Basics. No content owner or developer is charged for participating in the platform. Also, Facebook does not pay telco operators for the data people consume through Free Basics.  There is no money changing hands. We also do not serve any ads in the version of Facebook available in Free Basics.

Which are the countries where Facebook's Free Basics is working and what is the legal status of Free Basic in these countries? Are there countries where a decision on Free Basics is yet to be taken? What is the status in the US and Europe?

Free Basics is available in more than 35 countries with more than 45 telco operators and more than 350 services. You can find the full list of where we’ve launched here. We will continue to expand to more countries around the world. More than 15 million people have come online through our connectivity efforts.

Those jurisdictions that have engaged in extensive deliberation over net neutrality and zero rating, including the E.U. and the U.S., have adopted strong net neutrality rules that do not prohibit zero rating.  Instead zero rating programs are evaluated on a case by case basis to ensure they are in the consumer's interest, non-discriminatory and non-exclusive. Non-commercial zero rating programs, particularly Free Basics, would meet any such principles.

How does Facebook react to Google's withdrawal from Free Basics in Zambia?

Feel free to reach out to Google directly for more information on their decision.

What is Facebook's view on the line TRAI is taking in this issue so far? And what stand do you expect TRAI to take on January 31?

This web-exclusive Questionnaire does not appear in print magazine.


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