In a recent post, Wi-Fi Evangelist and Wi-Fi NOW Chairman and CEO, Claus Hetting, touted connecting the next billion as “the most meaningful of goals.” The next billion, of course, refers to the billions – precisely 4 billion, or some 60 percent of the world’s population, according to estimates made by the United Nations’ Broadband Commission for Digital Development – who do not enjoy access to the Internet. Those numbers are jarring, especially to Internet users in mature Western economies, where Internet penetration rates can surpass 90 percent.
In its latest report, “The State of Broadband 2015,” the Broadband Commission cited “a large body of evidence,” linking effective connectivity to increased economic growth, social inclusion, and even environmental protection. Research undertaken by Deloitte has also echoed this point, noting that for every 10 people connected to the Internet, one is lifted out of poverty and one job is created. Unfortunately, the Commission also pointed to the continued existence and intractable persistence of a digital divide, between the Internet haves and have-nots.
Given the significant slowdown in mobile cellular subscriptions around the world, a cellular option alone seems unlikely to bridge this sharp digital divide. Hence the allure of Facebook’s Free Basics. Free Basics is Facebook’s initiative to help connect millions of poverty-stricken people to the Internet. Free Basics would allow customers to access Facebook and select services, like Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, without a data plan.
India is an important test-case for Free Basics. Facebook launched Free Basics in India last year, alongside Indian telecommunications giant Reliance Communications. For that matter: iPass also recently announced a partnership with Reliance to bring iPass to Reliance customers, numbering some 118 million. Internet penetration in India stands at only 20 percent, even though India’s population of Internet users, estimated at some 350 million and rising rapidly, is second only to China’s.
Free Basics is now before the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, due to growing backlash from protestors, who argue that Free Basics violates net neutrality. Facebook, in turn, has reasserted its commitment to net neutrality in Mark Zuckerberg’s recent op-ed in The Times of India.
Both sides of the Free Basics controversy do seem, however, to agree on one point. In the 21st century, Internet access can no longer be seen as a mere commodity. Digital access is quickly becoming a bona fide social good.