Monthly Archives: January 2016

Free Basics

If you live in India, or happen to have visited in the past month, you probably noticed the seemingly-ubiquitous advertising for something called Free Basics. It’s what you might call a full-court press: full-page ads in newspapers, billboards, and movie theater trailers. Also, if you were to log into Facebook, you’d be presented with an ad (and possibly if you were in the US, too).

The first thing to understand is that Free Basics is Facebook, and Facebook is Free Basics, and they’re both basically Perhaps more accurately, if expressed in matryoshka dolls, Free Basics is inside which is inside Facebook. First, Facebook launched the initiative, which covers various projects aimed at spreading internet access to developing countries. One of the first projects was a free service that offers limited access to the internet, including ad-free Facebook and other sites. Then, in September, Facebook rebranded that service from to Free Basics.

Free Basics is Facebook’s effort to help the billion people of the world who don’t have access to the internet take their first baby steps online. Or, cynically, it’s Facebook’s effort to suck the next billion people of the world who don’t have access to the internet into Facebook. What sites are available varies by country, but every one of the 37 countries now enrolled in Free Basics offers Facebook.

Open internet advocates in India went positively up in arms. I’d wager that Mark Zuckerberg did not expect the backlash to be so decisive. “Who could possibly be against this?” he wrote in an editorial in the Times of India.

Well, lots of people, for a number of reasons. First, there is the Western imperialism angle. (Economist news editor Leo Mirani told me Free Basics includes “the sort of things that people in the West think that people in the poor world should have access to.”) Most of the backlash, however, was centered not on the gall of a Silicon Valley company galavanting into India with its own prescription for what it sees as a problem, but rather on the implications for the open internet. Indians know that “some of the internet” is a poor approximation of the whole internet.

Furthermore, zero rating—making some parts of the internet free while other parts aren’t—chips away at the nature of the open internet as we know it.

That’s where T-Mobile comes in. The mobile carrier recently started offering a video service called Binge On, which allows anyone who doesn’t opt out to stream video from Hulu, HBO NOW, Netflix, and others without having it count against data caps. Already, things are getting weird.

That’s all to say, zero rating is a worldwide issue. It’s also not going away. I am sure this won’t be the last time we talk about it on Radio Motherboard.

The telecom regulatory authority in India banned Free Basics at the end of December and is now soliciting public feedback on the issue. It’s expected to make a ruling by the end of the month, but even if that’s not delayed, there will probably be appeals and debates for months. Listen on for a primer on the Free Basics fight in India and what it means for the internet everywhere.

The Community-Owned ISPs Building an Alternative to Big Telecom in New York City

If you want high speed internet in most any spot in New York City, you’re stuck with Time Warner Cable. Or at least, that’s how it usually works. But increasingly around the city, citizens and small community groups are setting up their own locally owned and operated free wifi networks.

This week on Radio Motherboard, we take a trip to a meetup where two nascent but potentially disruptive groups were discussing how to collaborate in order to provide new connection options to people around the city.

Since 2012, the nonprofit Red Hook Wifi network has been providing totally free internet to people in the small Brooklyn neighborhood. For weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck the neighborhood, the Red Hook Wifi network was the only way many in the community could get on the internet or make phone calls. On any given day, Red Hook Wifi has about 500 users.

Meanwhile, NYC Mesh is little more than a meetup group at the moment, but its organizers have big plans. Its network currently has about 40 “nodes,” or routers that connect to each other to form a larger wireless network. Organizer Brian Hall is currently working to set up two “super nodes” that are jacked into a large internet exchange will allow anyone in lower Manhattan and large swaths of Brooklyn to bypass traditional internet service providers and connect directly to the NYC Mesh network.

Finally, a brand new fiber project is about to give the masses a new option, at least when they’re out on the streets of New York. Link NYC is a $200 million project to replace every payphone in the city with a free, gigabit fiber-connected wifi hotspot. We took a trip to Link NYC’s headquarters to check out the new “links” and learn about how the project hopes to protect privacy, become a profitable enterprise, and provide connections that people will actually want to use.

As always, thanks for listening!