Is zero-rated internet all it’s cracked up to be?


A number of tech companies across the world have made much hoopla about zero-rated internet access over the last year or so.

Facebook’s Free Basics, Wikipedia Zero and Twitter Access allow internet users in certain countries to access services for free..

While it sounds like a great initiative on paper, isn’t really worth it? The short answer, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), is ‘no’.

The organisation says that no one has systematically investigated what mobile users think of a zero-rated service, and it’s not looking too good for those involved.

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The data was pooled from 8 000 mobile internet users, and for the most part 51% of users make use of a full-cost data plan as their primary means of connecting to the Internet. The second most popular way to connect to the internet was through public WiFi hotspots.

Zero-rated plans from mobile operators were only used by 4% of mobile internet users.

Launching zero-rated plans had many operators thinking that it would bring a lot of people online for the first time as well – which it didn’t.

“Zero-rating did not bring most mobile Internet users online for the first time. 88% of zero-rating users in our study report that they had already used the Internet before using a zero-rated plan. This result is similar in each of the countries surveyed, with slightly higher percentages of zero-rating users coming online for the first time via a zero-rated service in India (15%) and Peru (22%). 10% of all Internet users in our sample said they had used zero-rating at least once,” A4AI said in a statement.

Even in the event that people made use of a zero-rated plans, they did not stay on it, as most have now moved on to a paid-for internet plan. The survey found that 63% of zero-rating users are now paying customers; 28% of this group no longer use a zero-rated plan at all, while 35% use both a paid plan and a zero-rated service.

But the most telling sign a free internet service might not be worth the effort, is that 82% say they would rather have access to the full Internet limited by time or data usage, rather than unlimited access to only certain sites.

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Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of A4AI, said that the results of the survey were somewhat surprising.

“Given the escalating global debate around zero-rating, we were surprised to see that a very small number of survey respondents reported having ever used a zero-rated service, and that even fewer reported using such a service as their main method of connecting to the Internet. The survey results — particularly the finding that over 20% of users primarily use public WiFi to connect — underscore the importance of public access solutions alongside available and affordable mobile data services.”

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