Internet.org Gets Caught Up in Net Neutrality Debate in India

26 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook Strives to Bring Cheap Wi-Fi to Rural India.

MUMBAI: If Mark Zuckerberg hopes to deliver on his vision of bringing the Internet to the 4 billion people who lack it, the Facebook chief will first need to make his plan more appealing to salesmen like Shoaib Khan.NARENDRA NAGAR, India — On a rooftop at the Shri Kunjapuri temple, located a mile high in the foothills of the Himalayas, a metal tower with five microwave relay dishes pokes a bit further into the sky.

Khan’s perfume and cellphone shop in one of this city’s many slums recently displayed a large blue banner advertising Zuckerberg’s project, called Internet.org, in the back. Another sign for the free package of Internet services — offered in India through the cellphone carrier Reliance Communications — was posted prominently in front. Now looking at Arun’s Garuda installed in the airport at Tirupati just inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi he recalls the words of Harold Rosenberg even as he creates images. But that tower and others like it, parts of a communications network spanning 2,500 square miles of mountainous terrain, are the key to Facebook’s little-known ambition in India: to build a network of cheap Wi-Fi access points that would help residents in remote villages, like those here in the Garhwal region near the Nepalese border, log on to the Internet almost as easily as people do in the West.

According to statistics provided by Reliance Communication, Internet.org has engaged over a million people, but that’s not nearly enough, considering that India’s population goes well over a billion. The dishes relay signals to and from a base station in the valley below, other mountain towers and, ultimately, Internet access points in about 40 villages. The aim of this initiative was to give subscribers free access to 33 websites, ranging from news, travel and sports among others “We believe that every person should have access to free basic internet services – tools for health, education, jobs and basic communication. Facebook’s rocky experience since it brought Internet.org to India in February shows that good intentions and technological savvy are not enough to achieve a noble goal like universal Internet access.

The two wings of this divine, transcendental Prince of all Divine Vahanas, are believed to be the two branches of the Sama Veda, known as Brihat and Rathantara. In April, Prasad told the Parliament that he would soon call a meeting of all service providers to look into the problem of frequent call drops being faced by customers.

This shrinking number of subscribers is surely not doing any favors to Facebook, as their internet service can only be accessed by those with a Reliance subscription. According to Michael Ginguld, AirJaldi’s director of strategy and operations, nearly 30,000 customers in the region are currently using the service. The skepticism of phone sellers like Khan and the weaknesses of Facebook’s Indian partner are just two of the problems that have bedeviled Zuckerberg’s project so far.

For 10 rupees, or about 15 cents, customers can buy one day’s access to 100 megabytes of data; $3 will buy 20 gigabytes of data, which can be used over the course of a month. Market experts also think that a lack of awareness could be blamed for the fact that Facebook’s internet platform hasn’t really taken off in India. Zuckerberg and Facebook however faced an almost immediate backlash, with critics saying that the initiative’s objectives were against the very fabric of net neutrality. Internet.org’s free services — which include news articles, health and job information, and a text-only version of Facebook — are deliberately stripped down to minimize data usage and the cost to the phone company. He has been working on this image ever since March this year.” Garuda, the celestial carrier of Lord Venkateswara has an inseparable link to Tirupati,”says Pandit. “ I have created a sculpture which is symbolic in today’s world and times.

In a Facebook post in July last year, Zuckerberg said, “A year ago, I announced Internet.org, our effort to bring affordable internet access to everyone in the world. Recently, a steady stream of young men stopped by the clothing shop that is the sole vendor of Express Wi-Fi in the village to buy a bit of data and chat with the proprietor, Maken Singh Aswal.

As recently reported in the New York Times, Khan has been displaying a banner ad for Internet.org in his shop, while having absolutely no clue what the platform was about. But many Indians want more and complain that, contrary to its altruistic claims, the project is simply a way to get them onto Facebook and sign up for paid plans from Reliance. When the reporter explained to him what it was, he was rather dismissive, saying that customers would hardly buy into anything connected to the “patchy” connection Reliance is providing.

We’re starting to see this vision become a reality, and we’ve already helped 3 million people access the internet who had no access before.” In a country like India though, the problem is slightly different. The Express Wi-Fi plan supplemented his Airtel data plan, but he said it had a major drawback. “It only works on one side of the house,” he said, gesturing around the main room of his family’s small home. But he remains passionate about his crusade. “Internet access needs to be treated as an important enabler of human rights and human potential,” he told the United Nations last month. Although Facebook began by working with mobile operators, issues such as network access, coverage quality and call drop are impediments that pose a hurdle towards the noble objective. That was a common complaint about Express Wi-Fi, which has a single access point in this town of 5,000 people and focuses the signal on the main business strip.

Many users are against the service because they feel the neutral internet is being affected by the limited selection of websites provided in the package. Facebook is investing heavily in other parts of the project, including experiments to deliver cheap Wi-Fi to remote villages and to beam Internet service from high-flying drones. Perhaps the top most agenda for Zuckerberg during his India visit this week ought to be improving connectivity in India, before he could accomplish his goal of bring billions more online, and eventually on Facebook.

According to Mark Zuckerberg, he definitely supports net neutrality, as it fights and prevents discrimination. “Net neutrality means we can use the services we want, and innovators can build the services we need. Connecting everyone is about preventing discrimination too.” As of September this year, Facebook has decided to rename the project and change Internet.org into Free Basics. Across India, Facebook already has about 130 million users — only the United States has more users — and wider use will eventually translate to more advertising revenue for the company.

An average human being could comfortably hide in Garuda’s plumage, without ever being found till he stepped out by himself. “For me the life of struggle is an experience, it is a kind of disorientation which is the beginning and end, and in that way it’s like a closed question, that operates in a basic perceptual textbook in the human psyche, which also tells the reader. But in the neighborhood’s narrow alleys, where rivulets of raw sewage competed with sandaled feet, there was little evidence that anyone had noticed Internet.org. A conversation with a dozen cellphone users at a tea shop uncovered no one who had heard of Freenet or Internet.org, but plenty of complaints about Reliance’s sluggish data network and poor customer service compared to the market leaders, Airtel and Vodafone. While on paper this platform was open to all developers, a quick look at the terms and conditions revealed how Facebook still reserved the right to accept or reject the apps that are being submitted for Free Basics. Arun says: “I am not interested in taking things apart, I’m interested in what happens when man decides to find his own peace during his own journey, after all why do millions go to Tirupati – it’s for their own peace.

The companies have tested various pricing models, including offering some service for free, but have concluded that charging a consistent, low price is the best approach. Phone-card vendors are key advisers, educating people about all their options. “New customers don’t come looking for Freenet,” said Khan, who is no relation to Shoaib Khan. Even if Reliance’s network were good, he said, the package excludes WhatsApp, a popular messaging app owned by Facebook, and users must pay to see the photos in their Facebook feeds. “If you have to pay for data, what’s the point of calling it free?” he said. And the message on the pedestal reads: “The sculpture – while depicting the concept of the building based on the widespread wings of ‘Garuda’, the vahana of Lord Vishnu, popularly known as Lord Venkateswara, the presiding deity of this place, signifying the flights taking off – symbolises the human being unshackling the ‘self’ from the bondage of ‘maya’ and carrying the ‘atman’ (soul) to reach the ultimate bliss of attaining ‘moksha’”.

Facebook and AirJaldi decided that there should be just one authorized seller per village to give that person a strong incentive to sell as many subscriptions as possible. “That’s how connectivity spread in terms of satellite TV in India,” said Chris Daniels, the global head of the Internet.org project. “There was an entrepreneur in every town who had a dish. Khan noted that another carrier had recently awarded him his choice of a Hero motorcycle or 45,000 rupees — nearly $700 — for signing up 1,000 customers. So it’s a model that has proved to work in the past and we’re simply applying that to Internet connectivity.” A version of this article appears in print on 10/26/2015, on page B4 of the NewYork edition with the headline: On Himalayan Hillsides, Wi-Fi Comes to Hamlets .

After their first 30 days online, he said, about 40 percent of them became paying data customers, 5 percent stuck with only free services and the rest left. “This is a program that is working to bring people online, and working incredibly well,” Daniels said. “Connectivity is something that improves people’s lives. In a recent interview, however, the agency’s chairman, Ram Sewak Sharma, was skeptical of Internet.org. “Maybe they have wonderful objectives, but the way it is being implemented, that’s not really appropriate,” he said. Daniels said Facebook had been listening to all the criticism and had made many changes to Internet.org, including opening it to other companies that wanted to offer free services on the platform. “We always appreciate feedback, in whatever form it comes,” he said.

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