Can Zero-Rating Support Ecosystems To Bring the Next Billion Online?

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Tech lovers can be guilty of techtopia. We imagine that technology makes life better for anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or access to basic resources.

With 4.4 billion people in the world still not online, the tech community is deliberating over how we will get the next billion online. Will it be through policies like Zero-Rating? Will it be through companies, foreign governments, NGOs, or even the U.S. Government?

At the June Technology Salon we explored Is Zero Rating the Answer to Internet Adoption? with three lead discussants:

How Can We Get An Ecosystem?

Giving communities access to internet isn’t enough. To create value, internet should be at the center of an ecosystem of information, services, local content, and more. Working with Zero-Rated services should be one part of an ecosystem, and a means to connect rather than the entire development strategy for aid organizations.

Very few organizations, governments, or NGOs have the reach to pull in diverse groups to the degree that Wikipedia, Google or Facebook could. While Zero-Rating practices have created outrage and claims of net neutrality violations, in the world of aid, there is a lack of a larger company or organization that has the bandwidth to pull in so many different groups.

In the current development system, different organizations work in education, agriculture, democracy etc., but as mapping has shown, the current system lacks coordination across geographic areas and sectors. Working with a company that provides a platform could be a unifier for multiple groups that otherwise have been operating in siloed programs.

Still one of the greatest benefits for development organizations to work with Zero-Rated services is to access an infrastructure that connects with the most remote geographical locations in the world. Many NGOs, non-profits and government agencies lack resources to create the necessary infrastructure to even connect to these isolated areas.

Internet.org, for example, is already partnering with several NGOs to reach rural communities and provide a platform for local content. The NGOs said this provides them a type of “sandbox” to develop mobile content which will only be more relevant as mobile ownership grows throughout the world. Because of Internet.org, these organizations have focused time and budgets on creating content and developing programs, rather than just trying to build inroads to these communities.

Some Causes for Concern With Zero-Rated Companies at the Center of the Ecosystem

Despite the fact that Zero-Rated platforms can be part of necessary ecosystems, there are notable points for concern. One of the best arguments I have heard against Zero-Rating is that if companies become the doorway for users to the Internet, at the end of the day, these users are at the mercy of stakeholders with profit-earning interest as their main objective.

Zero-Rated services should be a means and not an end in the development world. They should be one way that organizations can connect with communities in especially rural areas. What if NGOs, non-profits, and organizations spent their budgets on creating content, programs, and resources instead of trying to build infrastructures to reach these communities?

Even those who disagree with Zero-Rating argue that it takes an ecosystem to get billions of people online. The ecosystem will require a lot of social and economic development to create value around the structure. Zero-Rated platforms provide inroads to communities that may be cost-prohibitive, or otherwise impossible.

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