These days internet connectivity is often hollered as a human right, in the name of free choice and expansion of freedom, or taken for granted as a utility, like electricity and water – at least in the Global North. Unfortunately, both recent statistics and debate unveil that connectivity is neither evident, nor achievable, at least for now, without Augean tradeoffs in the Global South.
Today, 3.2 billion of the world’s population have internet access. This leaves out, or marginalizes, almost 3 out of 5 people. In the Global South, 4 billion people remain offline.
A host of imaginative initiatives are under way to connect those who are marginalized for technical reasons, i.e. those living in areas not covered by cable, satellite or other air transmitted access. Obviously, these initiatives are spearheaded by Cyber Stakeholders: a Microsoft-led initiative in Kenya taps into unlicensed “white space” frequencies; Google’s Project Link provides metro fiber networks and last-mile Wi-Fi access in Uganda and Ghana; Google’s Project Loon tests balloon-powered internet in Sri Lanka; Google’s Wi-Fi for railway in India will potentially cover 400 stations nationwide using fibre-optic infrastructure of RailTel.
Despite good will, these initiatives do not address the main stumbling block, i.e. affordability. In fact, in at least 46 countries “the cost of entry-level broadband service exceeds 40% of monthly income for people living on under $2/day, and in many countries exceeds 80% or even 100% of monthly income”. To make matters worse, the majority of people who cannot afford connection, live in middle-income countries with great income inequalities like China, Brazil and India.
Current debate concerns internet access offerings that supplement ongoing efforts by governments to lower connection costs through market deregulation and by imposing broadband sharing, private and public subsidies and user community cost-sharing.
Some of these initiatives are ad-supported, like the Mozilla-Graamenphone partnership in Bangladesh offering users 20MB of unrestricted data daily in compensation for visualizing advertisement, or the Pepsi promotional campaign FreeCharge in India, trading 20 Rupees worth of internet for Pepsi caps, bought by consumers for 60. The most obvious issue of these initiatives is their promotion of consumerism.
Other initiatives are walled, like FreeBasics, a limited access initiative, part of Internet.org, launched by Facebook in collaboration with local access providers in 38 countries, including Ghana, Kenya and Angola and due to be launched in for Facebook important user geographies, like Brazil and Nigeria. Initially, zero-zoned, or free, access was limited to by Facebook preselected applications, including for instance itself and Wikipedia. More recently, Facebook acts more as a gatekeeper, i.e. web sites/applications that qualify to by Facebook set technical and competitive specifications are welcomed to the green pastures behind the wall.
A major bone of contention is the fact that Free Basics does not respect net neutrality, i.e. it restricts how the plumbing of internet is used in terms of input and output. On the user side this poses two sets of problems. First, the consumer foregoes free open choice. This is the reason why Free Basics has recently been banned in India. Second, it skews users’ perception of what internet is, even at times making believe that Facebook equals internet. Other serious issues with Free Basics are potential negative effects on competition. In fact, it could be accused of fortifying powerful monopolies. The content supplier approval process and criteria also potentially hurt competition and slow down innovation on the content creation side.
Some voices claim that the Global South cannot forego the opportunity of zero-zoned initiatives even though they curtail net neutrality. Facebook’s CEO Zuckerberg, for instance, takes an expansion of freedom point of view, “A reasonable definition of net neutrality is more inclusive. Access equals opportunity…”, that could be defended as concerned segments do not have a wider choice, due to resource and structural conditions, and that it is “not sustainable to offer the whole internet for free”. Other advocates, like Cull from South Africa’s ISP Association claim the irrelevance of the debate, ‘it’s not a particularly helpful debate for us in South Africa as our market is at a different stage of development. We face a different set of issues in order to ensure fair competition here”.
That notwithstanding, issues pertaining to net neutrality multiply in pace with technology. In fact, differentiation of transmission and reception speed are also today technologically possible dimensions of content and customer segmentation that regulators in the Global South will have to address imminently. As a matter of fact, The Federal Communications Commission, has recently ruled against cable and telephone companies’ attempts to charge content companies, such as Netflix, Facebook and Google, extra for speeding their transmissions to users in the US.
Given the complexities and risks involved in regulatory decisions on net neutrality, the tradeoffs and their impacts have to be better researched.
- The impact on innovation and content creation, if any, of internet services that are walled or two- or multi-tired in terms of speed, have to be understood as to ensure that the economic growth potential of the Global South is not hampered by vested interests.
- The risks and benefits that applications like Facebook, promote through Free Basics or in open contexts, have on everyday practices need to be understood. Are they social artifacts or development tools? If merely social artifacts for starters, do they support technology adoption and appropriation, hence creating potential to contribute to development? Under what conditions?
If these important questions go unanswered, connectivity risks becoming another Much Ado, leading to nothing but increasing inequalities… and less freedom.