Affordable Access: There Isn’t An App For That

No serviceInternet.org’s recent announcement of their zero-rated app in Zambia which offers free access to Facebook and a sprinkling of other services has sparked yet another discussion of Network Neutrality in emerging markets.  Pundits from Zimbabwe to Berlin have expressed concern about the app’s violation of Net Neutrality and its impact.  Even Evgeny Morozov has spoken up to raise concerns about Facebook’s Gateway Drug. The reefer-madness implied in his article may be a little overblown.

I’ve already described what I think  are the issues around Net Neutrality in Africa but here are a few further thoughts about access in sub-Saharan Africa:

  1. In terms of affordable, pervasive Internet access in Africa, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others are not the enemy.  They all have a vested interest in seeing cheaper, more ubiquitous bits flowing to everyone.  This may not seem that special but it makes them stand out in stark contrast to Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) whose mission is to maximise what users pay for voice and data.  This makes them an important ally in gaining access to spectrum and achieving other goals like Open Access. And it is around issues like spectrum management and Open Access infrastructure where the important battles for Network Neutrality will happen not around zero-rated apps.  The chances of shaking up the cosy oligopolies of the MNOs are much smaller without some of the heft of the big Internet companies.  That doesn’t make them angels but it does make them profoundly useful in this context.
  2. Second, I can’t get away from the feeling that arguing against the use of zero-rated apps is a little paternalistic.

    “Don’t eat that hamburger son, it isn’t good for you.”
    “Yeah but I’m hungry.”
    “Wait till you can afford some healthy food.”
    “Say what?”

    It is implied that Africans will somehow not be able to figure out that there is more to the Internet than Facebook.  Just like Americans were completely unable to figure out that there was more to the Internet than Compuserve, AOL, MSN, etc in the mid-nineties.  Oh, wait a minute, they did.  And let’s not forget that those walled-garden services were backed by the some of the biggest media/software companies in the world, yet they have all disappeared because people chose the Internet.

  3. The real problem with zero-rated apps is that it is only window-dressing on real access issues.  There is no app for affordable, pervasive access.   It’s not going to stop incumbents from rent-seeking on fibre networks that they control.  It’s not going to introduce any competitive pressure on MNOs to deliver in areas that they are not.  It’s not going to significantly improve overall affordability in urban areas where access already exists and it is not going create the new access models that are required to create sustainable access business models in sparsely populated rural areas.So why is this the first concrete thing we’ve heard of from Internet.org?  Because it’s comparatively easy to do and it’s something Facebook already has plenty of expertise in doing.Facebook/Internet.org will have to branch out beyond this if they want to really make a difference but it will not happen overnight as many of these changes will take years to implement.  I really hope that Facebook will begin to invest more in Africans to help them define and implement their own solutions.

Finally, the issue of privacy has been raised in terms of what Africans will trade for their zero-rated access.  This is a pretty big deal and is not limited to Facebook or Internet services in general and it is in no way limited to Africa.  Understanding how our privacy is being compromised via networked technologies and services and renegotiating our relationship with online services (and with our governments for that matter) is a global issue that needs human capacity everywhere to deal with.  It is tremendously important but is not really what’s at the heart of the issue in zero-rated apps.


‘No service’ image courtesy David Becher
Creative Commons – Share Alike