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Fight Over Free Digital Content Escalates
By Hazel Trice Edney
Published May 18, 2016

 

Kim Keenan, president, MMTC

Kim Keenan, president, MMTC

A leading advocacy voice in the minority community on communications policy has lent its voice to the growing debate over free data. Mobile providers are starting to rollout free data programs that experts say will help economically disadvantaged Black and Hispanic communities that are stranded on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide.

The paper from the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), comes as the FCC faces pressure to prohibit the free data packages by so-called Netroots activists who want to strictly limit the kind of plans that communications companies are able to offer to consumers regardless of their potential benefit to consumers.

Specifically, the fight centers around so called “zero-rated” plans, which allow consumers to visit certain websites without counting against their data allowances because the provider and/or the operators of the sites essentially pick up the tab. Free typically is not opposed, but the activists say that such plans give certain content providers an unfair advantage over others.

“The digital elite have dominated this discussion…and that has to stop,” MMTC President and Chief Executive Officer Kim Keenan told reporters, referring to Netroots activists and their supporters. Keenan added that free data is equivalent to toll-free calling. “And no one said there was anything wrong with that,” she said.

Indeed, consumer advocates say the free-data plans are a benefit to low-income individuals who already have limited access to the Internet because of the potential cost savings and the ability to access more Internet content either as part of a free data program or by using an original data allotment that wasn’t used on the free content. Maximizing Internet use and adoption is the only way to close the digital divide, and mobile Internet has helped minority communities make great progress.
Closing the digital divide is now critical as online barriers have dire social consequences. In today’s world technological literacy and Internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity in every household. From catching up on the news, paying bills, doing homework, and applying for public services to searching for jobs or accessing health records; the simple fact is that free data means more access to the Internet and its countless benefits.

To underscore the stakes involved, The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council released a study outlining the significant benefits of the free content being offered through the “zero-rated” plans being offered by telecom companies. The benefits, according to the report, include:

• At a time when the rise of mobile devices has made the Internet an indispensable tool of daily life, innovative new programs that increase the value of data plans without actually increasing their cost provide much-needed flexibility as demand for data increases.

• The opportunities for consumers are significant, with each of the four national mobile service providers offering free data programs that come in varying forms and are still evolving.

• Free data programs are especially important for disadvantaged African-Americans and Latinos, for whom “wireless connectivity is preferred” means of accessing the Internet.

• While some of the content providers picking up the tab for consumers run entertainment sites, the net effect for disadvantaged African-Americans and Latino is that the data they might have otherwise used will be available for more meaningful activities, like applying for jobs or taking online classes.

• “Premature or unnecessary intervention by an entity like the FCC would likely chill further experimentation with offerings such as free data,” the paper states. “An outcome that would prove devastating to consumers and contrary to the innovative ethos that has long permeated the U.S. wireless space.”

Beyond that, the report also offers an insight into the reception the free-data plans are receiving among consumers and even regulators. A recent survey by CTIA found that 85 percent of consumers described themselves as “extremely/somewhat likely to use more data if it didn’t count against their monthly data usage.” Case in point: T-Mobile’s Binge On program saw customers watching two times more on free streaming sites on plans with limited data. And even FCC Chairman Wheeler originally praised zero-rating plans, calling them “highly innovative and highly competitive.”

In attacking the free-data plans, the Netroots activists appear to be trying to rekindle the fight over net neutrality, the principle the FCC enshrined in regulation last year to ensure that Internet Service Providers treat all online content equally.

The critics of free-data plans contend that they allow larger content providers to attract more consumers at the expense of competitors that cannot afford to pick up the tab for mobile devise users who visit their sites.

But MMTC and others say that Netroots activists are taking a policy to absurd lengths and, in the process, neglecting economically disadvantaged people whose needs are getting lost in an abstract policy fight.

“Free data, a common business practice that has quickly diffused across the mobile broadband space, is a prominent feature of such heightened competition,” the MMTC report concludes. “The digital elite can afford to intellectualize the value of free data, but of communities of color, it can mean an affordable digital connection to the future.”

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