‘Zero Rating’: The Pros and Cons of Free Online Access
(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)
“Free Internet access.” Sounds attractive, doesn’t it? But those three words can become a battleground once you ask the people behind no-charge bandwidth what they want in return.
A zero-rated site is a site or service that a wireless carrier has exempted from its fee structure or data cap. A site can get zero rated when the company behind it pays for the privilege, or because the carrier saw some other reason to deliver it to you on the house.
Neither corporate motivation may match your own interests.
Facebook for free
Zero rating has become a popular marketing tactic in countries with thin Internet use. Facebook in particular has made “Facebook Zero” not just a sales pitch in developing markets but also part of an Internet.org initiative to expand access “to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it.”
In July, Facebook and Internet.org announced an app for Airtel wireless users in Zambia that would include free access to not just Facebook, but also Wikipedia and Google search; Airtel’s own site; and a variety of country-specific work, health, and local-search sites.
But everything other than those 13 whitelisted destinations would come at Airtel’s usual rates.
Loss leaders, for a cause
In this case, there is an intersection between charitable and capitalist impulses, said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.
“Solving the Internet access problem in a broad-based way is hugely expensive and time consuming and doesn’t merely benefit the sponsoring companies,” he wrote. “Zero rating is a shortcut to some of the same objectives that’s much cheaper, quicker and more focused.”
And it may, indeed, lead people to decide that this Internet thing is worth the price. In an email forwarded by a publicist, Ovum analyst Neha Dharia said zero-rated services often provide only “a very basic form” of a site, leading most users to pay for better access in the long run.
Other sites have taken notice. Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation, has been lobbying carriers to grant free access to the online encyclopedia. Enough have signed onto its “Wikipedia Zero” initiative since 2012 to cover some 350 million people across 29 countries, Wikimedia deputy director Erik Möller noted in an Aug. 1 blog post.