Yesterday, Facebook’s Free Basics was launched in Nigeria in partnership with Airtel. Free Basics is a service that lets users access certain websites on their phone for free, even if they have zero balance. With yesterday’s launch, subscribers on Airtel Nigeria will be able to visit a handful of websites at no cost. These sites include: Facebook, Messenger, PASS.NG, Wikipedia, Jobberman, Nairaland, Ask a Doctor, and BBC News, among others.
We went to town to get the reaction of some high profile Nigerians in the digital space to the launch of Free Basics in partnership with Airtel Nigeria. Their reactions were in various shades.
Founder of the Lagos Angel Network (LAN) and President of the African Business Angel Network (ABAN), Tomi Davies, thinks that with this development, Airtel is challenging the other networks to innovate relevance in light of an increasingly youthful market and that this is an interesting market penetration tactic by Facebook.
We also asked Oluyomi Ojo, CEO/Co-Founder, Printivo, and this was his response: “My concern has always been about how do we reach the millions of Nigerians who are not online yet? This is not just a light at the end of the tunnel for these people. It will also help people who build stuff reach more people.”
Abuja-based Pastor Gbenro Ogundipe says that Free Basics is a welcome development but adds that more educational sites should be included.
PR practitioner, Chinelo Ngene thinks it is a long overdue welcome development. She says, “Data costs in Nigeria are some of the highest world over so this new facility which lets users access certain basic information without data is a step in the right direction. Hopefully other MNOs get included and we even get to have a situation where e-commerce sites and utility apps get added to this.”
But not everyone is agreed about the cost of data and the impact of Free Basics on subscriber migration. While Wale Falade also thinks that the partnership is a good development, he wonders how many customers it will swing Airtel’s way, considering that data has become very cheap now. “I wouldn’t port to Airtel just because of it,” he concluded.
Olamide Egbayelo, a digital media strategist, also thinks it is a good idea, but adds that data privacy should and must be guarded.
An executive in the telecoms industry who asked for anonymity had this to say: “I think it is a big deal for Airtel. This kind of partnership is a great avenue to get new data activations on the network. as you know for every telco is data is a very big deal now. Obviously Airtel would use Facebook free basics to “lure” in new data subscribers and over the course of their initial life cycle give them a proposition that will get them to become paying data customers. I am sure that MTN, Glo and Etisalat data marketing teams are quite worried at the moment.”
From legal practitioner and techie, Rotimi Fawole: “My thoughts would be that it is a great way to get more people on the internet and put more knowledge and entertainment at people’s fingertips. Would be great for students and the incident argument of the population. Internet penetration rates would increase. Knock on effect on e-commerce, hopefully.”
And businessman, Ronald Nzimora, chips in: “I think it’s huge. Facebook’s partnership with Airtel will actually deepen internet penetration, especially in areas with perennially poor internet access, and help make even more people take advantage of technology to solve their problems and enhance their quality of life. The ore people learn to use tech tools to solve problems, the more opportunities it opens up for business and trade too. The only snag for me is I do not know what the pay-off for them is. These companies don’t just do something for nothing. I hope to find out what the payoff is.”
Free Basics and Net Neutrality Issues
It wasn’t all cheers for Free Basics though. There are some concerns, all centered around the issue of Net Neutrality.
A senior executive in a top tech outfit who prefers to stay anonymous thinks that Facebook is grabbing more lands, becoming a bigger beast, and monopolising access to the Web. His words: “I don’t really think it is good news. If it’ll make people have access to the whole world wide Web, it is good news. But if it is limited, it’s not something to be excited about. Facebook wants to be the Internet. Imagine if Google did this.”
Management Consultant and Digital Media Strategist, Kathleen Ndongmo, is glad to see Facebook working with Nigerians who are actively working to get their communities connected with capacity, but also expressed concern: “It completely undermines net neutrality. If I am not on Airtel, it means I must port?”
Hear leading Nigerian Software Engineer and Semantic Web Architect, Emeka Okoye: “It is against net neutrality. But I guess since Facebook’s growth has not been high in this zone, it needs this to boost growth.”
Another software developer, Celestus Ezeokoye, echoed similar sentiments: “My biggest concern is there won’t be a level playing ground anymore for websites to grow and the authorities aren’t conscious enough to check the excesses of Facebook. Websites that are competing with the websites on free basic will suffer from exclusion. I hope PIN Nigeria becomes vocal about this & try to get the right people in authority to scrutinise this move properly. I mean, it’s banned in India because of this. However if they open it up totally to all websites equally, then there’s absolutely no problem.”
Educational Books Publisher and CEO of First Veritas, Gbenro Adegbola, thinks it is good development for the bottom of the rung access but also mentioned the need to address the issues that led to problems with the service in India and elsewhere.
The benefits of Free Basics notwithstanding, there is no doubt that issues of net neutrality exist. It clearly gives an unfair advantage to operators and websites not on the service. In both Egypt and India, Free Basics was shut down over these issues. But there may not be anything to worry about at the end of the day.
If past trends with internet services in Nigeria is anything to go by, an ISP that offers cheap or free internet services gets clogged up quickly and network quality degrades to the point where the network is often unusable. And if/when that happens, people in serious need of reliable internet will look elsewhere.
Join the conversation: add your thoughts on the launch of Free Basics in Nigeria on the Airtel Network.