Going by how Narendra Modi hugged Mark Zuckerberg at the town hall meeting the latter hosted, India’s prime minister ‘likes’ the Facebook founder. And going by the government’s statements on net neutrality—including distancing itself from a government committee report which recommended treating WhatsApp-type services as telecom licensees—the Modi government loves the net-neutrality camp as well. Problem is, the net-neutrality camp hates much of what Zuckerberg’s Free Basics is doing to, as they put it, carve up the internet. Indeed, much of Zuckerberg’s town hall meeting at IIT Delhi was devoted to promoting Free Basics as a do-no-evil product. “There are stories that we are trying to do Internet.org as a small set of services and cut access to the rest”, he said, “but that could not be further from the truth”. Those supporting net-neutrality, he added, “don’t want anyone to do any kind of zero-rating at all, but if you are a student and you get access to free internet to do your homework which you wouldn’t get otherwise, whom is it hurting?” In response to various online campaigns in favour of net-neutrality, Zuckerberg said “Those who don’t have access to the internet cannot sign online petitions pushing for increased access to internet”.
That, of course, is why Indian telcos launched ‘sab ka internet’, to get people to give missed calls—a uniquely Indian innovation—to vote for their version of net-neutrality, which is same-service-same-license. This newspaper has supported the telcos since, while India has 179 million narrowband internet users and 86 million broadband ones, it needs to invest another Rs 5 lakh crore to provide internet for all—given that most internet is built out by the private sector, a WhatsApp voice reducing telco revenues from 40 paise a minute to 4 paise would mean there would be no internet for the rest of India.
Ironically, companies like Facebook are working on innovative solutions to spread the internet along with the telcos. A Facebook or a Google balloon or a drone can provide internet connectivity in remote areas—the drone communicates with a wi-fi spot on the ground which then uses the unlicensed 2400 MHz frequency to provide cheap/free internet to users. How the drone will communicate with the wi-fi spot—through laser or normal spectrum bands is to be worked out; ditto for how it will move the data to a switch to connect to the internet. Microsoft also has its white spaces plan, but it isn’t as free as you would think (goo.gl/4rp2QP). If Facebook, Microsoft or Google are to use unlicensed spectrum, they have to transmit at very low power levels and that reduces the distance the signal travels; if spectrum is to be given free, the same objective of low-cost internet can be met by even the existing telcos. Getting the internet to a billion Indians isn’t going to be easy, or cheap, but Zuckerberg’s Internet.org—of which Free Basics is what you experience on the phone—is a vital part of that since it is working on an array of innovative solutions to replace/augment what the telcos are doing.