‘Zero rating’ plans could boost Internet access in Asia, says expert

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While over 3.1 billion people worldwide are able to tap the Internet, around 2 to 4 billion people in India and China have no Internet access, comprising over half of the world’s disconnected populace. But one way to bridge this gap is zero rating programs – waving data caps for those who cannot afford expensive data plans. That would expand access by bringing more impoverished people into the digital world and driving demand for local content and services, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Darrell West told Borderless.

Internet use has surged in recent years in China and Southeast Asia, largely because of the proliferation of inexpensive mobile phones that are widely available, and at prices that many lower income people can afford.

West said that if particular sites get a lot of traffic in a country, zero data plans would enable people to surf those sites without any added data charges. This has been very popular in the developing world because it can provide low cost service to people who have difficulty paying, he said.

While many lower income folks may be able to afford a cheap mobile phone, the added cost of data may stretch their budgets, or even make Internet access unaffordable.

“India and China could be big beneficiaries because they have half of the global population without Internet access. Affordability is a big challenge there and zero rating is a way to overcome this problem,” said West, founding  director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings.

Some critics assert that zero rating programs limit competition and are discriminatory, fearing that sites that don’t count against the data cap have an edge over those that do, and that has led to a ban on zero rating programs in some countries.  But West argued that zero rating programs may encourage competition by increasing access and fueling general demand for Internet usage and content.

Cutting taxes on mobile broadband is another way to increase Internet access. Some countries, including Malaysia, have taxes on mobile broadband that discourage Internet access, but these “connectivity taxes” and fees increase the cost of mobile services and represent a significant barrier, especially for communities where affordability is a major issue, West contended.

In Malaysia, for example, it is hard to expand Internet usage when people can’t afford mobile devices or services due to high taxation. A Telecom Advisory Services study by Raul Katz, Ernesto Flores-Roux, and Judith Mariscal finds that while Malaysia has a 6.1 percent tax, a reduction there would increase subscribers between 260,000 and 530,000 people, West noted.

“Anything that raises the cost of access is a barrier to people to be able to use the Internet. Taxes are one vehicle that a number of governments are seeking to employ, either on the telecommunications company or on various mobile providers, because mobile has been growing rapidly so governments see that as a source of new revenue,” he said.

Language content is also an issue, as most online content worldwide is in English. So if you speak, say, Khmer with little or no English skills, your access to information is limited, as there is not much Khmer content available online.

“What websites need to do is to provide local language translation of important information. So many sites are only in English and this really restricts people’s access in the developing world, so we’re trying to encourage service providers to incorporate multiple languages. Because in much of the developing world, large percentages of the population do not speak English.”

That’s the easiest way to expand access in the developing world, he said.

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