Experts at Mozilla have expressed concern that zero rating poses dangerous anti-competitive consequences and leaves the poorest users behind in terms of access to the internet.
This is one of the key takeaways from Mozilla-backed research, carried out by Research ICT Africa, focused on how citizens use the internet when data is subsidised and when it is not.
"Across all countries, users we interviewed did not come online for the first time with Facebook Free Basics or other zero rating promotions. African users are very savvy, and we saw many people using these services to play the system and save money," said Jochai Ben-Avie, Senior Global Policy Manager at Mozilla.
"Poor respondents are at risk of being trapped in the walled garden. Poor respondents in Rwanda spend most of their time in free, zero-rated content, instead of the open internet. This realises our concerns that zero rating poses dangerous anti-competitive consequences and leaves the poorest users behind," added Ben-Avie.
He also said that many Africans are sceptical about free offerings, but partially subsidised offerings that give access to all of the internet and not just some parts of it were popular.
These type of offerings are Equal Rating compliant – a concept the company says it pioneered to describe plans that are free of discrimination, gatekeepers, and pay-to-play schemes.
Still too expensive
Mozilla references a 2016 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) report which found that approximately 25% of the population of Africa has access to the internet.
Research ICT Africa has determined that affordability issues continue to keep the internet out of the hands of many and digital literacy is key to people being able to tap into the potential of the open internet.
"While the cost of data and devices is falling, the internet is still too expensive for too many," said Ben-Avie. "While 95% of the world lives with access to an internet signal, far too often users, especially in rural communities, usually have access to only one, low quality provider which is often the most expensive option in their country."
As far as more widespread access and improved connectivity is concerned, power supply and digital literacy are not the only challenges, the Mozilla executive explains.
The research provided an overview of the various scenarios playing out in countries like South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda.
"Uptake of zero rating varied across the four countries. Awareness was low and scepticism of free services was high in Nigeria, whereas in Rwanda bundles with unlimited WhatsApp and Facebook were very popular. In Kenya and South Africa, the zero-rated services were welcomed for their cost-reducing nature," Mozilla stated.
Ben-Avie added that Rwanda is fast emerging as a leader in connecting the unconnected. "Putting internet on buses has brought access to many .... Research ICT Africa found that Rwandans were willing to wait longer to get on an internet connected bus. Mozilla is working with the Rwandan government and the Digital Opportunity Trust to train 5,000 digital ambassadors, digital literacy trainers that will go out into communities to train Rwandans on how to use the internet."
He also said that while the digital divide in South Africa is stark, it is great to see the recent commitment from the country's government to connect 22 million South Africans by 2020.
"Our research reveals that a significant urban-rural divide remains in opportunities to access the internet." said Dr Alison Gillwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa. "Too often the debate over zero rating glosses over the fact that many people in rural communities don't even have access to the best subsidised offerings and have to spend largely disproportionate amounts of their already low income on mobile access, and that's assuming they can even find electricity to charge their devices."
"Given all the controversy around zero rating, it's surprising to see how few research respondents in these African countries actually use or depend on zero rated data. We are, however, seeing a lot of interest in Equal Rating compliant models which provide access to all of the internet, not just some parts of it," said Ben-Avie.
He asserts that the power and potential of the internet for economic development, social empowerment, and political participation can only be unlocked when people actually know how to use the internet.
"Although there are real problems with safety and security online, fears about getting skin cancer from a cellphone, as expressed in one focus group, are not one of them. If we're going to be serious about bringing the internet to all people, we need to get serious about digital literacy."