Can Mobile Free Data Plans Help Bridge the Digital Divide?

Can Mobile Free Data Plans Help Bridge the Digital Divide?


Net neutrality advocates recently descended upon the Federal Communications Commission seeking an investigation into free data programs days after the D.C. Circuit affirmed the agency’s Open Internet Order.  Although the Commission declared such programs – also known as zero-rating – as within the general conduct standard of the open Internet rules and subject to case-by-case review, Title II purists would like the FCC to ban such practices outright.

Responding to a colorful presentation of 100,000 queries into free data plans, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the Commission is “in ongoing discovery mode to try and have an understanding of just what is the spectrum that we’re dealing with here so that we can deal with these issues on a case by case basis.”  He also noted that zero rating issues are broad and do not lend themselves to “one-size fits all” approaches.

Those supporting free data programs, like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Multicultural Media Telecom and Internet Council, see these plans as providing an opportunity to subsidize the cost of mobile Internet connectivity so that people can experiment with new products and services online without the fear of exceeding their monthly data allowances. The programs are particularly beneficial to members of economically vulnerable communities, who, with fewer financial resources, are often left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

In a recently released White Paper, MMTC noted that “zero-rating and other free data practices are poised to play key roles in helping to close the digital divide by addressing cost concerns and strengthening the value proposition offered to skeptical non-users, two key considerations for the millions of Americans who remain offline.” The organization has also launched a Protect My Free Data initiative to raise awareness about the issue and encourage people to support the FCC in its case-by-case approach to reviewing such programs.

The potential benefits of free data programs are supported by a recent survey of 800 African Americans from across the country conducted by Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategy, entitled Crossing the New Digital Divide: Connecting to Mobile Economic Empowerment.   The study, which found that 72% of African American households maintain, on average, at least three connected devices, and 68% of individuals surveyed use their smartphone frequently to access the internet, demonstrated that there’s “a significant gap between African-Americans’ enthusiastic embrace of mobile technology as consumers and the community’s ability to recognize and capitalize on mobile technology as a vital tool for economic empowerment.” The theory goes that if free data programs are allowed to continue, consumers will have more chances to benefit from internet access and connectivity as they explore new and compelling offerings that they may not have otherwise encountered.

Time will tell whether the Commission will continue to support free data programs. For now, as people get more educated about the issue, there seems to be growing consumer interest in having offerings that allow more affordability and choice for trying new services online.


  1. On the issue of mobile zero-rating generally, there is another path that could avoid the conflict altogether. Mobile carriers could embrace simple, “network independent” toll-free / zero-rated apps and achieve the same benefits for themselves and their customers. This is because “autonomous” toll-free app tech is designed to prevent perceived forms of network induced prioritization / favoritism / price discrimination (intentional or accidental), and if implemented properly cannot violate net neutrality principles. With a network independent app, the carrier literally can’t see whether the app requesting data from the network is subsidized or not by the app creator (the app acts to make the carrier “blind” as to which apps are / are not subsidized – ergo discrimination / app favoritism is not possible). Also, the regulator’s remit likely ends at the core network’s edge — not extending to the billions of independent apps (3rd party software, whether toll-free apps or otherwise) that already reside on phones after being installed at the sole discretion of the phone owner. Lastly, since software / apps are likely a First Amendment free speech protection issue, one will not wish to regulate where and how coders may or may not install their app creations as this too could limit publication freedoms for other forms of written expression.