Free Basics was Facebook’s effort to bring internet access to the poor of India. At Do Speed Test, the world’s #1 broadband speed test tool, we were eagerly looking forward to working with Facebook’s Free Basics. But that wasn’t to be so as a committee set up by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has asked all telecom operators in India to stop Facebook’s Free Basics service.
While this is unfortunate, it is important to understand why Facebook’s Free Basics was essentially an ill conceived effort. Most people who come to Do SpeedTest to do an internet speed test or a DSL speed test have Google as the centre of their web experience – not Facebook. But Free Basics requires you to browse the internet with Facebook as the guiding light of your virtual universe. This is something a lot of people were uncomfortable with.
Free Basics is nothing but the old Internet.org, which was renamed by Facebook after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. It was Facebook’s attempt to offer an open platform to India developers to offer their websites free of cost to anyone who could not afford internet access in India. While Facebook did provide free internet access to those using Free Basics, they could only use the service with Facebook’s partner websites and applications such Samsung, Ericsson, Opera Software, MediaTek, Nokia and Qualcomm.
So Free Basics did not really provide equal and unbiased access to all services. A lot of people didn’t like the idea of the ISPs partnering with Facebook on Free Basics providing access to only a few app developers and services.
People who oppose Free Basics argue that the internet should be free for all, and everybody should be equal on the internet. This is what the whole concept of net neutrality is based on. We have discussed both Net Neutrality and Facebook’s Internet.org initiative What is Net Neutrality and It's Importants and Facebook's Internet.org Good or Bad.
But why did Free Basics fail in India? The reason for this is quite simple. Facebook fails to understand that what’s limiting the growth of internet in India is not the cost of data access, which is actually very cheap in India. The problem is that computers and smartphones are still not affordable for a majority of Indians. So when the poor in India spend a lot of money on buying smartphones and computers, they want to be able to use the internet and surf the web just like the rich people do. They want full access to the internet – watch videos on YouTube, visit any website they want to, download games and apps of their choice.
The last thing they want is to only visit websites or access online services that Facebook permits them to. Even if Facebook provides them with internet for free, for the poor of India limited access to the internet is the same as no internet, so it really makes no difference to them. It is for this reason that Facebook’s Free Basics has failed. Mark Zuckerberg is a genius and a visionary at a very young age. But he seems to be very badly advised about what people in emerging nations truly want or expect.
Facebook had wonderful intentions with Free Basics for sure, and it wasn’t in any way trying to exploit the poor of India as Facebook’s opponents allege. The only problem with Facebook is that they failed to truly understand that Indian mindset. And that is why Facebook’s Free Basics failed in India.
If there are any lessons to be learned from this, it is that the Silicon Valley has to learn a bit more about the problems of the poor in the emerging world. They cannot afford to live in a bubble of their own making, as this will lead to many more failures such as Free Basics. They must understand the perspective of the poor in emerging nations before designing products for them. ‘ The poor will have more internet access in India in the near future for sure. But that won’t be because of access to a free internet service. That will be because of cheaper hardware costs, which will allow them to buy low cost desktop PCs, laptops and smartphones.
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