Internet.org, the project from Facebook which facilitates free internet access to specific website and platforms, and is now working under the name of Free Basics, is set to be launched for the Zimbabwean market in January 2016.
In each of these countries, the Free Basics service is facilitated through partnerships with mobile network operators that are willing to adopt the service.
The hope, from an operator’s standpoint, is that the free service will introduce a host of mobile broadband users who are ordinarily excluded from the benefits of the internet by its high cost to the power of online connectivity.
Currently, the internet.org team has been in talks with local content producers and proprietors of online platforms, sharing the value proposition of signing up their platforms on to the service.
Information on which mobile operators are going to be onboarding free basics hasn’t been shared yet though it would seem that Econet and Telecel would be likely candidates. Both have dabbled in free access services of sorts before.
Telecel had a Facebook Zero service which offered free access to the social media platform while Econet launched Econet Zero – a bouquet of free education sites that included Wikipedia, which has also been offered under every Free Basics plan. There has also been the BiNu service which also affords subscribers free access to some online properties.
These are conditions that have been extended in one way or the other to Free Basics as well and are likely to be requirements set by mobile operators that want to whet new internet users’ appetites and expose them to the awesome nature of the web, without giving away the whole farm in the process.
Who wins and who loses in all this?
From a Zimbabwean internet user’s perspective, there is some benefit that comes from Free Basics. The absence of price regulations for internet services has made broadband a rather pricey utility, creating apathy from users who haven’t been exposed to the convenience of the internet.
Rather than the internet being an accessible tool and platform, it’s perpetually tagged as an expensive indulgence, something that justifies efforts by Facebook and every other broadband access crusader. In theory, Free Basics is supposed to help push down the socio-economic barriers that come with this challenge.
A free internet, or the illusion of one, could help grow internet use in the long term, creating traction for other web-based services that become open to a new set of users, something that can help future business cases where overall internet access shoots up.
At the same time, the opportunity for any web platform owner to place their content on a free platform could help some services to appreciate the benefits of an online presence, either through sales, authority and visibility.
However, all this is quickly knocked down by the Net Neutrality argument. Internet.org and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and champion of Free Basics, have faced most of the backlash that has come from net neutrality proponents who have argued against an incomplete internet experience.
In India, there was pushback meant to prevent Internet.org’s net neutrality violations when it was first announced that it was set to launch there. Now, there is a rising wave of discontent being aired by the same proponents who argue that the Free Basics approach which offered some compromise is still offering Indians a bastardised version of an internet experience.
In Zimbabwe’s case, the aspect of net neutrality violation won’t be any different, especially when one considers how the mobile operators are the ones who determine which platforms and sites get to be green lit for Free Basics.
If the Free Basics service is paired with existing internet services like the Facebook and WhatsApp bundles, this effectively herds Zimbabwean internet users into specific silos, creating barriers for other services that local net citizens have yet to experience.
There is a lot more to the internet beyond Facebook and the handful of services that will be provided for free via Free Basics. An organic exposure to the internet could help Zimbabweans who don’t use the internet see that. However, with Free Basics and every bundle in the way, some folks will never see beyond those walls.