By Somali K Chakrabarti
India, a home to 243 million internet users in 2014, is poised to rapidly improve its digital readiness and develop into a strong digital economy.
The steep rise in the number of mobile phone users in India will bring into the fold many such users who did not have access to internet before, and with little or no idea of how or why internet is useful for them.
Based on the premise that connectivity is the right of all human beings, Facebook has launched the initiative Internet.org to bring down the cost of internet access by extending basic internet access free of cost to mobile smartphone and feature phone users in different developing countries.
So far, the manner in which smartphones and tablets are used in India is somewhat limited.
Leaving aside a handful of digital marketeers or power users, who use third party apps extensively on their smart devices, majority of Indian smartphone users use their smartphones more or less as feature phones, mainly for clicking pictures, chatting on WhatsApp, surfing Facebook and a few other web-sites, or for playing a few free games.
Similarly, the average Indian tablet user uses tablets for clicking pictures, light e-book reading, watching videos on You Tube, talking on skype, playing some games and a moderate amount of web browsing.
Looking at the pattern of smartphone and tablet usage in India, Facebook in partnership with Reliance Communications, has come up with a host of free services for Internet.org, designed to suffice the needs of average Indian smartphone, tablet and feature phone users, who access internet primarily on their mobile devices, and to introduce many of the first time users to basic uses of internet.
The basic service has a selection of 33 sites that can be accessed with Reliance Freenet connection from android mobile devices free of any surfing charges.
The genres include:
The service is available for RCom customers (Prepaid & Postpaid GSM & Prepaid CDMA only), currently in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Mumbai, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu/Chennai.
Prior to launching Internet.org in India, Facebook has partnered with Telcos for offering free basic services to people in other countries such as Philippines, Indonesia, Tanzania and Paraguay.
Some of these sites, being the most commonly surfed sites, Internet.org will reduce the cost of internet access for many smartphone/ tablet/ feature phone users, with limited browsing requirements.
The users most likely to be benefitted are the users from rural and remote areas. Even without buying a data plan, they can start experiencing internet. They can surf through the news sites to keep abreast of the latest happenings, access information about healthcare and welfare services, farmers can look up for information to improve their crop yields and students can access wikipedia or wikihow to collect information for their projects. The availability of content in local language will help the in rural areas to access relevant content.
Internet being the backbone of a knowledge economy, Internet.org is a step forward towards bridging the information gap between people living in the remote parts of the country and those who live in cities and thus empowering more and more mobile phone users to join the knowledge economy.
Some concerns about net neutrality have been raised by service providers and telecom operators who are not a part of Internet.org eco-system.
Hope the future will see Internet.org address those concerns and continue to empower end users by educating them about internet usage, while giving them the choice to select from a wider set of free sites on a telecom operator of their choice.
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[i] Where the Digital Economy Is Moving the Fastest, by Bhaskar Chakravorti, Christopher TunnardRavi, Shankar Chaturvedi, hbr
[ii] Facebook’s co-founder & CEO Mark Zuckerberg In India With Internet.org!, You Tube
[iii] India, the Feature Phone Nation, by Anuj Srivas, thehindu.com