“Everyone Will Be Connected”: Free Basics in Africa to Support ICT4D

“Everyone Will Be Connected”: Free Basics in Africa to Support ICT4D

Liezel Cilliers (University of Fort Hare, South Africa) and Ambika Samarthya-Howard (Praekelt.org, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3179-1.ch002


Information and communication for development thinkers has come up with many plausible interventions that promise to improve the lives of underprivileged people in developing countries. The people that these interventions are meant for have not always benefited from these initiatives because they have limited ICT access due to its cost. There is therefore a need to improve universal access by enabling affordable access by the poor. This chapter, therefore, discusses free basics and how they can be used to improve affordable ICT access in order to facilitate ICT4D interventions in African countries. Since the use of free basics is not without controversy, a balanced analysis and an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of this initiative are provided. Social capital is used as the theoretical lens for evaluating the use of free basics for improving ICT access for those who cannot afford it. The chapter makes a case for the viability of using free basics through a discussion of case studies on how free basics have been used to empower underprivileged people, especially girls in Africa.
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Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT) can be used to promote access to, and exchange of information, to enable the population to create and enhance social networks. The population is thus able to use the information and technology in a meaningful way to improve the quality of their lives (Yim, Gomez, & Carter, 2017; NDP 2030).

Globally there is a concern that unless high-speed broadband Internet is made available at competitive prices, the technology will never be inclusive (NDP 2030). The International Telecommunication Union (2014) reported that worldwide there are 4.3 billion people who do not have access to the Internet, and of these people 90% live in developing countries. The majority of the online activity in developing countries have been found to be on social media with some reports suggesting that users do not differentiate between the Internet and social media networks (Gebhart, 2016).

In order to increase access to the Internet, Facebook launched Internet.org in 2013, and re-launched as Internet.org in 2015. It allows users to access and use Facebook and other selected websites for free (Sen et al., 2017). The initiative was launched ‘in hopes that one day, everyone will be connected’ (Kalyani, 2016). Free access is made possible through a partnership between Facebook and local mobile operators in 60 countries across Asia, Africa, South and Central America (Yim, Gomez, & Carter, 2017; Internet.org, 2015). Free Basics started gathering momentum in the past year with 25 new countries joining the programme since May 2016 (Sen et al, 2017).

However, the Free Basics initiative has not been without controversy. Internet activists have raised concerns about a number of issues including the lack of data privacy when users access Free Basics services as Facebook still controls all the proxies through which the web requests and responses are directed (Sen et al, 2017). The second concern is that net neutrality may be compromised. The principle of net neutrality enables and protects free speech on the Internet. This means that the ISP cannot block or discriminate against any application or content. Similarly, the ISP is not allowed to slow down the competitors’ content, provide preference to content companies that can afford to pay for better services or block content that it disagrees with. The open Internet thus guarantees that all users receive the same service at the same speed (Kalyani, 2016). These concerns were serious enough to ban this program in India. So while Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, maintains that Free Basics is more than just providing access to the mobile Internet, but can also change and save lives, there is much more that needs to be done to understand how this initiative impact on developing communities (Careerride, 2016). The purpose of this chapter is to investigate if Free Basics should be used to affordable access in order to support ICT4D developments in Africa.

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