When Mark Zuckerberg announced to Indian newspaper reporters, in the US for prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, that he wanted to spread the internet, the whole internet, many scoffed and recalled what they called Splinternet—that’s the term used by the net neutrality camp to describe the stripped-down internet Facebook offers, now christened Free Basics. Yet, Zuckerberg’s internet.org—of which Free Basics is the part you experience on your phone—is a lot more. The Trai, which is examining the responses it has got to its net neutrality consultation, will have the final word on whether Free Basics violates net neutrality, but it is difficult to see how a service that offers some internet is worse than not having any internet at all. Right now, in India, Free Basics is offered through RCom, but even a Bharti Airtel or a Vodafone can offer the service if they wish. Google is not available on Free Basics in India, but it is in Zambia—which entity wants to be on Free Basics is entirely voluntary. So how splintered the Free Basics internet is really depends on whom all want to get on to the platform, it is not a restriction that Facebook is putting. The way it works is that anyone in India with even a basic feature phone goes to the browser, types in freebasics.com and the RCom servers automatically recognise this as a command and connect it to the internet—no one pays for this service, it is all free; in order to keep costs affordable, though, the stripped-down site is very light and does not offer features like video or streaming. According to Facebook, the RCom data shows more than 40% of those coming in through Free Basics graduate to paid services within a month, to be able to use the full-blown sites with video and other features —in that sense, it is like a free sample that drives business towards internet providers eventually.
Internet.org’s larger game plan, though, is not just to provide internet facilities to people who can access it but cannot afford it, it is also to provide the internet in places where there is no access in the sense of either landline or mobile phone connectivity—around a tenth of the world’s population falls in this category. This is where projects like Google’s Loon and Facebook’s internet.org come in. Facebook plans to have satellites or drones cover these parts of the world, including in India, and provide access. While the net neutrality camp may hate internet.org, both the government and telcos should welcome it since it reduces their burden—financial and physical—in connecting 1.2 billion Indians to the internet.