Mark Goldberg


Better none than some?

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has issued regulations [pdf] that prohibit “Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services”.

As Jerri Ann Henry of Protect Internet Freedom writes in an article in India’s “Daily News and Analysis” (“dna”), the outcome of a fight between Google and Facebook is leaving India’s poor without access to any part of the world wide web: “Six of the twelve leading anti zero-rating activists have received funding from a Facebook competitor – Google – either directly to them or through the organisations they represent.”

It is worth noting that so-called “discriminatory” plans were commonly available in North America to help get people online in the early days of mobile broadband.

For example:

  • In 2011, WIND Mobile bundled its WINDworld service into many of its dataplans, giving users access to Facebook Zero, news, weather updates & free ringtones;
  • In 2013, Eastlink offered a Social add-on that offered unlimited Facebook, Twitter and BBM for a flat $10 monthly fee;
  • In 2014, in the US, Sprint offered a $12 add-on to provide unlimited access to a customer’s choice of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, or for $22, the customer could have all 4;
  • The Mobilicity website still shows a $5 Light Data plan, giving unlimited access to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google+, and LinkedIn, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ. Includes: Gmail, Hotmail and MS Exchange.

I have written about these kinds of plans in the past, such as last year’s “Zero is better than nothing” that cautioned “Regulators need to be careful imposing restrictions on the evolution of business models.” In “Tiger ice cream and the digital economy“, I wrote “The digital economy framework shouldn’t block service innovation and differentiation.”

In the past, all of Canada’s wireless carriers have offered variants of these kinds of plans, providing customers with an incentive to try using their devices for more than just phone calls. In the US, Sprint’s Virgin Mobile brand offered a $12 flat rate add-on to give unlimited access to the customer’s choice of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, or for $10 more, the customer could have all 4.

These kinds of programs whet the appetite of consumers to try to get more from their devices and their mobile services. According to, Free Basics saw half its users progress from the free sample service to begin subscribing to a paid full internet service:

data from this program shows that it works to open up the full internet to people who use Free Basics. 50% of people who use Free Basics are paying for data – and access the internet outside of free basic services – within 30 days of coming online for the first time.

Yet, India has banned the practice, with a regulation that simply states “No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content”.

Once again, we see activists claiming to be acting in the consumer interest, reducing consumer choice. In some economies, this means monthly bills go up for some and go down for no one. In India, it means that the poor have access to no service, rather than having a choice of trying out some connectivity.

Ken Engelhart summarized this as:

As Jerri Ann Henry writes:

Those caterwauling the loudest that offering anything less than full access to the Internet is “poor Internet for poor people” are being highly disingenuous. After all, ideological purity is easy when it costs you nothing. It’s akin to a debate among the well fed about whether the starving should be given soup that isn’t organically sourced.

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