Two months ago I sat in a class on Developing Countries and Broadband at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. As part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the class focused on the potential impact of Broadband on Africa’s socio-economic development if we achieve three things: increase access to the internet, create policies that drive innovation and transform virtual interactions into business.
As a mining engineering graduate I was not the most attentive of the young Africans in the room as the lecturer, Roy Ulrich spoke of Broadband’s potential contribution to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals: increased access to education through e-learning, providing better access to health information and services and empowering people to hold those in power accountable. It was interesting but I did not find it compelling.
That is until he spoke of net neutrality and the ongoing debate on the Federal Commission for Communication’s (FCC) proposed rules for American Internet service providers (ISPs). My ears perked up as he defined the concept of net neutrality: the principle that ISPs and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application and modes of connection. He outlined why net neutrality is important: it lowers barriers to entry for new applications or websites while increasing transparency.
Then it hit me: while the rest of the world was demanding non-neutrality, many Africans were unaware of its importance. Others were aware and indifferent, while some of us were clamouring for non-neutrality!
A week before I left my beautiful country, Zimbabwe, for the United States, a friend had asked me to sign up for a campaign to lobby Econet, Zimbabwe’s trendsetting mobile network operator, to introduce a Twitter bundle as a follow-up to its Facebook and WhatsApp bundles. Social media bundles are mobile data packages that provide exclusive access to a particular social media site for a fixed period of time at a fixed charge, for example monthly bundles for either Facebook or WhatsApp cost USD3,00 while a weekly bundle costs USD0,95.
There is a good reason why I was part of the virtual crowd digitally picketing outside Econet’s firewall: bundles are affordable and they don’t limit my data usage on the two platforms. I can watch Ice Bucket Challenge videos on Facebook and download a tirade of high resolution pictures on WhatsApp without ever having to worry about my data costs.
Now here was a man telling me that all this glitter was not gold after all. How so?
How this works is that leading social media companies have come up with subsidized or zero-rated services, with regions like Africa in mind. Zero rated services enable some mobile network operators to provide access to a minimalized version of the given service without data charges and include Facebook Zero, Google Free Zero and Wikipedia Zero. Alternatively the companies subsidize mobile data usage of consumers.
The upside: more Africans are coming on-line at a lower cost.
The downside: it’s non-neutral!
In 2010 Chile became the first country to pass net neutrality laws that prohibit companies like Facebook and Google from subsidizing the mobile data usage of their customers. Mobile Network Operators who are providing different forms of subsidized data usage for particular applications and websites are limiting the opportunities for innovative Africans to succeed. As mPesa and Ushahidi have demonstrated, Africa has limitless latent expertise which provides a substantial untapped potential to innovate. For innovative ideas to thrive there is a need for a free market, and in the case of cyberspace – a free and open internet. Net neutrality is a key component of such a free and open internet.
The Dalberg Report on the impact of Internet in Africa states: “One of the ‘core infrastructure’ characteristics for a thriving Internet economy is a business environment that makes starting a business hassle-free”. The report also states that there are 60 social media platforms in Africa. I ask: how do we expect them to survive when users are charged more to use their platforms than they are charged to use the global giants of cyberspace?
We need equal opportunities for services to compete and for people to have choice. Most importantly we need to foster innovation and to do so we need net neutrality!