Zimbabwe is prepared to introduce Free Basics, the zero-rated Internet service from Facebook’s Internet.org. Telecel, the smallest of the three Zimbabwean mobile network operators by subscriber numbers, has recently confirmed its readiness to collaborate with Facebook and Internet.org, apparently, being attracted with the opportunity to drive Zimbabweans onto its network for access to this Internet freebie.
Recently we shared information about the plans that are underway to introduce Zimbabweans to Free Basics, the zero-rated internet service from Facebook’s Internet.org. In the latest bit of information to be shared about the service, it has been confirmed that Telecel is the mobile operator that will be partnering with Facebook and Internet.org for the launch in the Zimbabwe. This information was shared by sources working on the Free Basics implementation. This means tht once Free Basics is launched in Zimbabwe, Telecel broadband will have free access to all the local sites that are registering their sites for the service, as well as the other international platforms, which include Facebook, that are available on very Free Basics bouquet. In every market where it is launched Free Basics works through partnerships with mobile network operators which are willing to offer zero-rated access to the selected sites signed up for the Free Basics platform. Telecel, which, by subscriber numbers, is the smallest of the three Zimbabwean mobile network operators, has likely been sold onto the concept because of the opportunity that Free Basics provides in driving Zimbabweans onto its network for access to this internet freebie. Once loyalty is cultivated, the hope would be that these same subscribers also access other broadband services through Telecel while maintaining use of their Telecel lines for other mobile network services. In terms of appreciating zero rated content and its downstream benefits, Telecel is familiar with these dynamics. In May 2014, it introduced the Facebook Zero service which afforded all of its mobile broadband subscribers free access to a stripped down version of Facebook, something similar to the Free Basics proposition. Interestingly, Econet, the country’s largest mobile operator and provider of broadband services, passed on the Free Basics opportunity, something that seems to have been influenced the complications that would have arisen because of Econet’s own plays at offering zero-rated access to its own services like Ownai and Econet Zero. These services are already leaning on the competitive advantage of free access for Econet broadband subscribers, and a play at Free Basics would have meant extending that same advantage to services that compete with these Econet services. Such consequences of conditional free access and unfair advantages for zero-rated sites and applications are what have fueled the backlash that free Basics has experienced in countries like India and Egypt where it has been put on hold. By offering free access to some parts of the internet and not all of it, the service has been sucked into the net neutrality debate, prompting action from telecoms and internet services regulators to shut it down. With Telecel, a State controlled operator signing up for the service, Zimbabwe won’t face the same fate.