Give Free Ba­sics a chance!

Voice&Data - - EDITORIAL -

Mark Zucker­berg wants to get ‘all of the world’s pop­u­la­tion on­line and on Face­book’. In pur­suit of his dream to con­nect the un­con­nected, the iconic founder of Face­book is caus­ing a storm of protests. In­dia’s tele­com reg­u­la­tor TRAI re­cently sus­pended Face­book and tele­com ser­vice provider, RCom’s Free Ba­sics of­fer­ing. Face­book’s In­ter­net.Org re­branded as Free Ba­sics is now be­ing in­fa­mously re­ferred to as the East In­dia Com­pany of the In­ter­net age with its pro-un­der­priv­i­leged po­si­tion­ing be­ing la­beled a cha­rade. Zucker­berg’s dream is said to be in con­flict with Net Neu­tral­ity, a con­cept that de­tails com­mit­ment to keep the In­ter­net open with equal ac­cess to all. Face­book is also fac­ing sharp crit­i­cism for its on­line cam­paign to garner sup­port for Free Ba­sics where users click a prompt-based link to send an email to TRAI in sup­port of Free Ba­sics. TRAI had called for wider pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion on the is­sue. Now, af­ter Face­book’s cam­paign, the reg­u­la­tor has ex­tended the dead­line to Jan­uary 7 in or­der to have a more mean­ing­ful de­bate -- ad­vis­ing sub­mis­sion of de­tailed ar­gu­ments in­stead of send­ing tem­plate mails in sup­port. The con­sul­ta­tion is part of TRAI’s pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion on ‘Reg­u­lat­ing the OTTs’. Net Neu­tral­ity is one of the heated pub­lic de­bates that In­dia has taken with it into the Year 2016. A num­ber of is­sues such as ac­cess, speed, dif­fer­en­tial pric­ing are all get­ting mixed up and Zucker­berg has gone hoarse ex­plain­ing that Free Ba­sics does not vi­o­late Net Neu­tral­ity. The next bil­lion in In­dia needs to get on­line and par­tic­i­pate in the dig­i­tal led eco­nomic growth. ‘Some ac­cess is bet­ter than no ac­cess’— is an ap­peal­ing ar­gu­ment. How­ever, a dig­i­tal-led growth is not just a func­tion of a zero-rated In­ter­net ac­cess in In­dia. There are other pieces such as ver­nac­u­lar man­dated handsets, lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing, and ef­fi­cient roll­out of the na­tion­wide op­tic fi­bre net­work, en­tre­pre­neur eco-sys­tem… all of those are work-in-progress. Be­sides, In­ter­net is a util­ity and should be treated like one, just as elec­tric­ity grid. So, when a leader like Nan­dan Nilekani ar­gues for govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion with SIM and data use sub­sidy linked to aad­har card it makes sense from wel­fare per­spec­tive. And it is in­deed govern­ment’s job to look af­ter those ob­jec­tives. But, in the free mar­ket ecosys­tem many things co-ex­ist in fine bal­ance. Giv­ing Free Ba­sics a mea­sured chance can­not quite hurt ‘Dig­i­tal In­dia’ ob­jec­tives, as the choice to use or not use Free Ba­sics would still be with the con­sumer. And con­sumers are dis­cern­ing peo­ple. In­dia is a coun­try that com­mu­ni­cated with “missed call phe­nom­ena” it would be in­ter­est­ing to see what the coun­try does with Free Ba­sics, as such. The con­cern that dif­fer­ent routes to Net Neu­tral­ity could se­ri­ously im­pact over­all out­comes with ad­verse re­sults for the fledg­ling In­ter­net econ­omy of In­dia could be quite mis­placed. Give Free Ba­sics a chance. I would rather ap­pre­ci­ate a fo­cus on what th­ese OTTs do with con­sumer data. Now, with In­ter­net of Things also tak­ing off, a frame­work that pro­tects and reg­u­lates con­sumer data us­age should get the re­quired at­ten­tion. OTTs should pre­pare to be reg­u­lated, pri­mar­ily in that con­text. Af­ter all the whole fight is for that data mine. Isn’t it?

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