Facebook has reportedly signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with leading Telecommunications Companies operating in almost half the countries in Africa with a combined population of about 635 million to its free internet service in a controversial move to corner the market in one of the world’s biggest mobile data growth regions, according to Report Afrique.
Co-Founder and Chairman, Facebook Inc. Mark Zuckerberg, has made it clear that he wants to connect the whole world to the internet, describing access as a basic human right. His Free Basics initiative, in which mobile users are able to access the site free of data charges, is available in 42 countries, more than half of them in Africa.
But digital campaigners and internet freedom advocates argue that Facebook’s expansion is a thinly veiled marketing ploy that could end up undermining, rather than enhancing, mass efforts to get millions more people connected.
A Nigerian Technology Entrepreneur, Gbenga Sesan describe the initiative as giving someone a half loaf. Which means that the free basics doesn’t cover all the available sites that one might want to visit to get relevant information.
“Even if people are hungry, we shouldn’t be giving them half a loaf,” says Gbenga Sesan, whose organisation Paradigm Initiative Nigeria helps young people living in poverty get online.
“It’s difficult for me to argue against free internet,” he says. But he added that it is problematic to give people only part access to the internet, especially if they believe what they have is full access.
The smartphones growth is expected to be as many as 700millions in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. But a handset alone may not get you online, explains GSMA’s head of mobile, Yasmina McCarty.
A person might not have enough money for data, or the government might not have installed broadband cables in the area where they live, she says. Or the internet that is available might be in English, and therefore not useful to all. Or, McCarty adds, the person might not have been taught IT at school and would not know how to use the technology.
Free Basics offers a solution to the affordability issue, but three remaining barriers – infrastructure, content and education – need to be “attacked” to get the next billion online, says McCarty.
Facebook is exploring the infrastructure obstacle, testing a solar-powered drone and developing a satellite, both of which would beam internet access to remote communities from the sky. But people in the industry say efforts on the ground are equally as important to help the internet take root.
When introducing a technology such as the internet, “lots of personal interaction needs to take place, explaining how it works and busting myths”, says Alix Murphy from WorldRemit, a mobile money transfer company.
Industry watchers, technologists, Technology Entrepreneur are questioning the motive behind the move. Some are saying it’s an attempt to gain control and power into the internet business across the world using freemium to premium.
In a competitive emerging market, giving away data for free may not seem like an obvious business choice, but Facebook has sold it to mobile operators on the basis that customers will eventually buy data.
This freemium to premium model is also problematic, says Gbenga Sesan. “As soon as you are around the table you become a marketing opportunity,” he says, adding that there is a perception that internet rights campaigners are not supposed to ask questions about Free Basics “because it’s ‘for good’”.
Facebook did not reply to requests to respond to these specific criticisms of their approach, but after the fallout in India Zuckerberg wrote an opinion piece for the Times of India denying that Free Basics was about maintaining Facebook’s commercial interests.
“If people lose access to free basic services, they will simply lose access to the opportunities offered by the internet today,” he said, adding that the platform fully respected the principles of net neutrality.
Recently, it was launched in Nigeria with about 80 pre-selected websites on Free Basics with Airtel Africa, the country’s second largest mobile provider. Zuckerberg said Facebook was offering Nigerians, including 90 million people who are currently offline, the opportunity to access news, health information and services for free.
However, Gbenga Sesan says the offer is only appealing because the government “shirked its responsibilities” by failing to invest in infrastructure. He would rather see a state focus on building connectivity, arguing that this would engender competition that in turn would drive down the cost for the poorest citizens.
Analysts are saying that free basics gain grounds in Africa due to the lack of infrastructure in the region. They added that in countries where there are free Wi-Fi in the communities there won’t be a need for such.
As for the alternatives, initiatives such as public Wi-Fi and long-term investment in connectivity infrastructure are a far more solid proposition, says Murphy: “Companies [like Facebook] could pull out of the market whenever they like.”
She says good infrastructure coupled with “tiered, piecemeal pricing that lets you buy small chunks of airtime as and when you can afford it” is how the African economy works, and paying for the internet should follow that pattern.