Is zero-rated Facebook neutral enough?

Written by on February 10, 2015 in Opinion with 0 Comments

DronesIn the first six weeks of this year, Facebook, or should we say internet.org has launched its app in Colombia, Ghana and most recently India. At the end of last year it launched in Kenya and Tanzania. This is not, you understand, just zero-rated Facebook in emerging economies, it is part of the initiative to ‘bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the population that do not have it.’

Cynics amongst us might be rude enough to think that the driving force behind it is to bring Facebook, specifically, to that two-thirds. With it, ultimately, will come the huge business opportunities that Facebook is currently reaping in the more connected regions of the world.

That said, the initiative is definitely broader than that. The internet.org app comes bundled with a range of apps such as Wikipedia, BBC News, weather information and even job boards. Facebook, and its partners, which include telecoms equipment giants such as Ericsson and Qualcomm, are investing in heavily in caching and compression to allow efficient delivery to bandwidth (and device) hungry regions. They are also experimenting, like Google, with drones, balloons long-range planes and lasers to deliver that connectivity.

Whether or not you take the cynical view, it is hard to knock the effect connectivity will have on the unconnected. Bill Clinton got the attention of the world a few years ago when he said that ‘every million new mobile subscribers in Sub Saharan Africa increases the GDP of that country by one percent.’

It is hard to criticise.

The only problem is that right now we have to consider every move towards innovative pricing – whatever the motive – through the lens of net neutrality. India is no exception and towards the end of last year Bharti Airtel dropped its plan to charge a premium for VoIP services after a warning shot from TRAI, the Indian telecommunications regulator.

The point of net neutrality, though, is – clearly – neutrality, so presumably Bharti can go back to TRAI and say hey, zero-rating a range of apps to make them more attractive via our competitor is anything but neutral. So stop them.

If Mr Wheeler gets his – or as many believe, his President’s way – on 26th February, and net neutrality is wheeled into law, we will enter a period of great excitement for lawyers. Already (allegedly) AT&T and others are sharpening their legal teams for a challenge. And why would they not cite zero-rated Facebook and other apps as discrimination, even if the cause is a good one.

The other great problem with net neutrality, leaving aside philosophical debates about it being anti-competitive, is that it must work universally for it to work at all. And this, frankly, is impossible.

If net neutrality is enacted, we could well end up in the chaotic situation of traffic being routed through regions that refuse to adopt it. Back come the days of dark fibre. Deals will be done in dark rooms that will mirror the days of regimes looking the other way as roaming fraud became rampant and a real drag on operators’ revenues.

It could even be, if AT&T and their sharpened legal teams make headway, that Facebook itself will have to get involved. And Facebook vs the FCC would be a battle to watch.

Whatever happens with initiatives that bring zero-rated apps to emerging economies, the reality is that they will be tested against the tough benchmarks of net neutrality. It may be that Mr Zuckerberg will get away with it because of the non-profit internet.org cloak.

And, at least until Facebook’s commercial behemoth is swung into action, that must a good thing. For that two-thirds that await the internet.

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Alex Leslie

About the Author

About the Author: Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet. He is publisher of DisruptiveViews and previously BillingViews. .

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