Only 135 million Indians of a total of 330 million with access to the Internet were on Facebook. Five years later, 310 million Indians are on Facebook and over 560 million Indians have access to the internet. In 2015, net neutrality was the buzzword of the Indian internet. Facebook attempted to give more Indians access to a limited low-data-consuming version of the internet through its Internet.org plan which was re-branded as Free Basics — a plan that met with stiff opposition in India, as it was seen to be violating the principles of net neutrality.
The following year, 2016 was quite eventful in this regard. In the first quarter of 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) came down hard on Facebook’s plans and 1 Hacker Way was forced to withdraw Free Basics from India. In the second half of 2016, another event, that would have anyway made Free Basics redundant in India, took place – the public launch of Reliance Jio. This launch re-wrote the rules of the Indian internet and democratised internet access like no other service before. It was also the time when mobile internet usage had started to eclipse desktop usage for the first time.
Accessible data coupled with inexpensive smartphones led to a boom in India’s internet consumption, skyrocketing a ‘developing’ country right atop the list of the world’s highest data consuming nations. While Jio grew, other internet services including Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp, also grew alongside in India. Internet had started to become an essential part of the lives of Indians beyond the big cities and towns. WhatsApp was where India talked, shared, discussed and debated.
In 2020, when India is locked up because of the Covid-19 crisis, the country is still functioning. People are communicating with each other with ease, and without the worry of their data plans getting exhausted. This is, to a large extent, because of that launch in late 2016. Amidst this lockdown, comes the news of Facebook’s biggest ever investment – $5.7 billion in Jio for a 9.99% stake. There is a lot of speculation about what this deal would translate to for both the companies and for the Indian consumer.
Rewind to 2013. Along with the launch of Internet.org, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a whitepaper, outlining his plans. However, a lot has changed since 2013. “In many countries, the cost of a data plan is vastly more expensive than the price of a smartphone,” wrote Zuckerberg. This is no longer true, at least in India. The premise of Internet.org/Free Basic was on low data consumption. Jio has since rewritten that rule. However, the core idea in Zuckerberg’s whitepaper was “connectivity as a human right”. That thought still holds for the world in 2020, and Facebook’s multi-billion investment in Jio only adds more credence to that belief.
While Jio has paved the way for wide access to the internet in India, this alliance between Facebook and Jio will help make internet access more worthwhile, adding more meaning to an individual’s internet access by opening up many hitherto untapped avenues and opportunities. Facebook’s reaffirmation will integrate Indian internet users more deeply with the global knowledge economy, which Zuckerberg had talked about in his 2013 whitepaper. This knowledge economy encourages prosperity.
We are already witnessing this post-Jio boom in India’s knowledge economy. This internet-fuelled prosperity will expedite the importance of the internet in the lives of Indians, further establishing it as a “human right.” The Facebook-Jio deal not only brings two big companies from two powerful countries together, but it also empowers the Indian internet user to get more benefit out of his/her internet access.
The stated goal for Facebook-led Internet.org says “bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the portion of the world that doesn’t have them.” Jio has achieved the goal of “bringing internet access” and this Facebook-Jio deal will help fulfil the other half – “benefits of connectivity.
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