WASHINGTON (March 11, 2016) – February’s victory by net-neutrality activists to shut down Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in India might kill the country’s best near-term hope to address the lack of Internet access among the 1 billion Indian citizens who currently have no options for service, according to a new R Street policy short by Innovation Policy Director Mike Godwin and Associate Fellow Sharada Srinivasan.

While noting that the aims of net-neutrality defenders are largely commendable, the report finds their criticisms of the final version of the Free Basics program to be misguided, as “this kind of zero-rating implementation actually could have pro-market and pro-development impact.”

The report commends the Federal Communications Commission’s more nuanced approach to the issue in its 2015 net-neutrality decision. By contrast, the authors find the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a sweeping, “one-size-fits-all” regulation that fails to differentiate between anti-competitive bundles, such as one proposed by Airtel Zero, and responsible approaches, like that taken by Wikipedia Zero.

TRAI’s shortsighted decision to end Free Basics means Internet access in India is unlikely to expand much beyond the less than 20 percent of the population who currently enjoys service. Other efforts to address the problem have had minimal impact, with India’s National Optical Fiber Network plan achieving only 8 percent of its target goals over the past five years.

“Targeted at mobile phone networks – the most common devices to connect to the Internet, especially in rural India – the (Free Basics) program was envisaged not merely to bring the unconnected online, but more quickly than other alternatives,” Godwin and Srinivasan write. “That this proposal made a lot of sense in light of India’s infrastructure challenges didn’t matter—TRAI killed it anyway.”

The report concludes that decision-makers at every level – including policymakers, NGOs, telecoms and Internet-platform providers – should “assume good faith” in an effort to find a solution sooner, rather than later.

“Everyone from net-neutrality activists to private companies to the unconnected billion themselves want all of India to have full access to the full Internet,” the authors write. “Neither accusations of ‘economic racism’ nor defenses of colonialism are productive means to achieve that goal. Getting everyone connected is a central problem for the 21st century. We need a plan, and the time for the plan is now.”

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