Zero-rating

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Zero-rating (also called toll-free data or sponsored data) is the practice of mobile network operators (MNO), mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), and Internet service providers (ISP) not to charge end customers for data used by specific applications or internet services through their network, in limited or metered data plans.[1][2][3][4][5][6] It allows customers to use provider-selected content sources or data services like an app store,[7] without worrying about bill shocks, which could otherwise occur if the same data were normally charged according to their data plans and volume caps. This has especially become an option to market 4G networks, but has also been used in the past for SMS or other content services.

In combination with zero-rating some services, MNOs are typically setting relatively low volume caps for open internet traffic or conversely, over-pricing open internet data volumes.[8] Choosing to zero-rate existing third-party services trending among an attractive audience for the mobile network operator allows the MNO to increase or defend its market share for the target segment.[9] This price discrimination works also in favour of the chosen third party service.

Building their own services and delivering them at a zero-rate if bundled with their mobile contracts has also been a common practice among mobile operators. In this scenario, network operators can optimize their service together with their network to deliver an optimal service. Together with the existing billing relationship, this can be an important factor to compete with third party services or take control over volume-heavy services.[10]

Existing programs[edit]

Internet services like Facebook, Wikipedia and Google have built special programs to use zero-rating as means to provide their service more broadly into developing markets.[11] The benefit for these new customers, who will mostly have to rely on mobile networks to connect to the Internet, would be a subsidised access to services from these service providers. The results of these efforts have been mixed, with adoption in a number of markets, sometimes overestimated expectations and perceived lack of benefits for mobile network operators.[12] In Chile, the national telecom regulator ruled that this practice violated net neutrality laws and had to end by June 1, 2014.[13][14] The FCC did not ban zero-rating programs, but it "acknowledged that they could violate the spirit of net neutrality".[15]

Since June 2014, U.S. mobile provider T-Mobile US has offered zero-rated access to participating music streaming services to its mobile internet customers.[16] In November 2015, they expanded zero-rated access to video streaming services.[17] In January 2016, Verizon joined AT&T by creating its own sponsored data program, FreeBee Data, which "enables content providers to pay a wireless provider to allow its subscribers to engage with or consume a piece of content without it counting against the customers' monthly allotments".[18] Sponsored data on behalf of content providers through AT&T or Verizon covers the costs for the viewers and attracts more consumers. In other words, ISPs have created a 1-800 service for online users.

Advocates of net neutrality state that sponsored data "allows well-heeled content providers to pay for placement to the disadvantage of smaller companies that can't afford the same luxury".[19] Verizon's FreeBee Data program which allows its own customers to access certain content, like ESPN and its video streaming service, for free along with any other relevant app access and the data will not count against their monthly caps. In this way, big ISPs discriminate against data and content from those who do not pay to have their content included in the FreeBee or other sponsored programs.

Similarly mobile network operators are also able to use the underlying classification technology like deep packet inspection to redirect enterprise related data charges for employees using their private tablets or smart phones to their employer.[1] This has the benefit of Toll-free / zero-rated applications allowing employees to participate in bring your own device (BYOD) programs.

Toll-free / zero-rated applications[edit]

Another proposed method of providing subsidized data (partially or completely free) is to have the app itself track the data it consumes on the subject device (e.g., mobile phone, laptop) and report back to the carrier and the app provider the bandwidth consumed for purposes of effecting the zero-rating. An advantage of this approach is that the bandwidth management logic (the operational rules) can be easily deployed, amended, and updated via well-established app stores (e.g., iOS, Google Play) without significantly burdening the carrier network operations (e.g., BSS/OSS).

The apps themselves can be configured to be autonomous and enforce their own rules in real-time without seeking pre-download permissions from a third party, network control device, or analogous external element. This means that the app itself can turn on or off the data subsidy, change its physical appearance to transparently convey the level of subsidy to the end-user, or take other actions as the circumstances of time, place, use case, or otherwise dictate. These are all as set forth by the bandwidth subsidizer (the app provider) at the time the app is created and deployed. Further, given the autonomous nature of this "app-centric" approach to providing and managing subsidized bandwidth, toll-free application technology can also be created, maintained, and operated in a virtualized environment (e.g., for toll-free app integration simplification).

The resulting "swarm" of constantly evolving toll-free apps can naturally (via free market response to dynamically changing demand levels) encourage bandwidth use at optimal times (e.g., off-peak vs. peak), which not only lowers the bandwidth cost to consumers and content providers, but also improves the performance of the carrier network's existing infrastructure (lower power, faster speeds during peak times, reduced errors).

It is also worth noting that an "app-centric" approach to provisioning free or subsidized data appears[by whom?Discuss] consistent with core principles of Net Neutrality. Specifically, Tim Wu's[20] assertion that "... innovation theory is embodied in the "end-to-end" design argument, which in essence suggests that networks should be neutral as among applications. As network theorist Jerome Saltzer puts it: "The End-to-End argument says "Don't force any service, feature, or restriction on the customer; his application knows best what features it needs, and whether or not to provide those features itself" ... The Internet Protocol suite (IP) was designed to follow the end-to-end principle, and is famously indifferent both to the physical communications medium "below" it, and the applications running "above" it ..." Wu goes further by stating that "... the basic principle behind a network anti-discrimination regime is to give users the right to use non-harmful network attachments or applications, and give innovators the corresponding freedom to supply them".

Lastly, the app-centric solution likely obviates the need for DPI (avoiding privacy concerns) and is well-suited to being deployed across various carrier networks simultaneously (a shared "carrier-agnostic" platform) which eases the adoption of toll-free activities by bandwidth subsidy providers (e.g. the app providers, who are either content providers, merchants, service providers, or government agencies). For technical descriptions of the method, see related PCT (India and EU) & U.S. patent filings, as well as December 2016 full China patent grant (e.g., Application Activity System USPTO 20120036051 & 20140337114, T. Sachson).[21]

Reception and impact[edit]

Zero-rating certain services, fast lanes and sponsored data have been criticised as anti-competitive and limiting open markets.[10] It enables internet providers to gain significant advantage in the promotion of in-house services over competing independent companies, especially in data-heavy markets like video-streaming. A service provider, who is offering unlimited access to his service, will naturally seem more favourable to consumers over one where usage is limited. If the first provider is the one restricting access, he is creating a considerable advantage for himself over his competition, thereby restricting the freedom of the market. As many new internet and content services are launched targeting primarily mobile usage, and further adoption of internet connectivity globally (including broadband in rural areas of developed countries) relies heavily on mobile, zero-rating has also been regarded as a threat to the open internet, which is typically available via fixed line networks with unlimited usage tariffs or flat rates.[22][23] Facebook and the Wikimedia Foundation have been specifically criticized for their zero-rating programs, to further strengthen incumbent mobile network operators and limit consumer rights to an open internet.[24]

Notwithstanding these concerns, there remains a question as to whether regulators (e.g., the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S., the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications) can or will seek to limit subsidized data offerings in specific situations where the subsidy is enabled by third-party (non-carrier originated) software (e.g., an autonomous toll-free app) residing on a device outside the scope of prescribed telecommunication regulatory oversight and/or where the courts of local authority have determined that software code should be afforded the protections of free speech (e.g., the landmark Electronic Frontier Foundation software case of Bernstein v. United States, where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that software source code was speech protected by the First Amendment and that government regulation preventing its publication was unconstitutional).[citation needed]

Further, based upon recent indications from regulators in the U.S. and India[citation needed], zero-rated and toll-free models would appear to avoid regulatory scrutiny where the system of subsidizing data is designed to limit actual or perceived discriminatory behavior vis-a-vis the application provider (e.g., a content provider paying for free data within their application) and/or the end-user (the individual using a subsidized application). An example of such design might be found in a circumstance where the telecom carrier provisioning the subsidized data is incapable of affirmatively knowing which applications it serves are at any given moment benefitting from a data subsidy or not (note - the data subsidy is apparent to the end-user and app provider, but not to the carrier until "after the fact" of such data so delivered to the application). In this sense, the carrier is "blind" as to any data subsidy characteristics at the time data is provisioned through the network and any carrier-induced favoritism is not feasible. Another feature of free data that appears to pass regulatory muster is "after the fact" reimbursement to the end-user for data consumed that may be thereafter freely utilized by the end-user for accessing any content on the Internet (not just the content of the subsidizing party). In this regard, subsidized data programs that reimburse to the end-user for data consumed plus provide an additive "bonus" amount of subsidized data to the end-user are considered to be even more favorable in terms of promoting the public good since end-users may be capable of aggregating significant amounts of free bandwidth (again, unrestricted in terms of how such bandwidth may be utilized by the end-user) which can in turn be used for engaging with larger numbers of online services (whether data subsidized in nature or not). Lastly, due to the competitive and open nature of the Internet, larger and more financially able online entities wishing to engage with end-users will, via free market forces, be naturally incentivized to continuously provide greater amounts of free data to those same end-users in exchange for these end-users' online engagement and patronage, resulting in a continuous, transparent, and upward spiral of subsidized data allotments to end-users which not only lowers the cost of online access to existing and new end-users, but enables these end-users to spend the free data so aggregated on accessing smaller and/or less financially able online services (e.g., start-ups) that are not capable of providing subsidized data as part of their application interaction. In summary, by fostering a transparent, competitive, and non-discriminatory system for distributing subsidized data, progressive government policy makers can ensure that end-users not only have more free data to access the Internet in a manner chosen solely by the end-user, but these end-users may also have greater overall amounts of monthly accumulated data at their disposal for accessing new and experimental services which otherwise might not be embraced by end-users due to existing and prohibitively high cost of bandwidth[citation needed].

Moreover, the issue of free data is also showing promise in the field of mobile advertising[citation needed], and in particular mitigating the problems associated with mobile ad blocking. In short, market participants are currently considering the use of free data as a form of basic reimbursement for data consumed in the process of an end-user consumer viewing a mobile ad that consumes bandwidth paid for by that end-user consumer. Similarly, the provisioning of free data may also take the form of a "data reward" for viewing said mobile ads, where the free data provided to the end-user is in excess to the amount consumed as a result of the ad itself (in effect granting the end-user consumer a "data surplus" that may be used for other non-ad related purposes).

In addition to commercial interests, governments with a cultural agenda may support zero-rating for local content.[25]

List[edit]

The following countries and telecommunications carriers currently offer these notable instances of zero-rated services.

Country Carrier Mobile Wikipedia[26] Zero Wikipedia[26] Internet.org[27]
Algeria Djezzy Yes Yes
Algeria Ooredoo Yes
Angola Unitel Yes
Angola Movicel Yes Yes
Anguilla Digicel Yes
Anguilla Flow Yes
Antigua Digicel Yes
Antigua Flow Yes
Aruba Digicel Yes Yes
Bangladesh Grameenphone Yes Yes Yes
Bangladesh Robi
Barbados Digicel Yes Yes
Barbados Flow Yes
Belarus Life:) Yes
Benin MTN Yes
Bermuda Digicel Yes
Bolivia Viva Yes
Bonaire Digicel Yes Yes
British Virgin Islands Digicel Yes
British Virgin Islands Flow Yes
Cambodia Smart Axiata Yes
Cape Verde Unitel Yes
Cape Verde CVMovel Yes
Cayman Islands Digicel Yes
Cayman Islands Flow Yes
Colombia Tigo Yes
Curaçao Digicel Yes Yes
Democratic Republic of the Congo Airtel Yes
Democratic Republic of the Congo Tigo Yes
Dominica Digicel Yes Yes
Dominica Flow Yes
East Timor Timor Telecom Yes Yes
El Salvador Digicel Yes Yes
Fiji Digicel Yes
French Guiana Digicel Yes
Gabon Airtel Yes
Ghana MTN Yes Yes
Ghana Airtel Yes
Ghana Tigo Yes
Grenada Digicel Yes Yes
Grenada Flow Yes
Guadeloupe Digicel Yes
Guatemala Tigo Yes
Guinea Cellcom Yes
Guinea-Bissau MTN Yes
Guyana Digicel Yes
Haiti Digicel Yes
Indonesia Indosat Yes
Iraq AsiaCell Yes
Iraq Korek Yes
Iraq Zain Yes
Jamaica Digicel Yes Yes
Jamaica Flow Yes
Jordan Umniah Yes Yes
Kenya Safaricom Yes Yes
Kenya Airtel Yes
Kosovo IPKO Yes Yes
Kyrgyzstan Megacom Yes Yes
Liberia Cellcom Yes
Madagascar Blueline Yes
Malawi Airtel Yes
Malawi TNM Yes
Maldives Ooredoo Yes
Martinique Digicel Yes
Mauritania Mauritel Yes
Mexico Telcel & Virgin Yes
Mexico Virgin Yes
Moldova Moldcell Yes
Mongolia G-Mobile Yes Yes Yes
Mongolia Mobicom Yes
Mongolia Skytel Yes
Montenegro Telenor Yes Yes
Montserrat Flow Yes
Morocco Inwi Yes Yes
Morocco Maroc Telecom Yes Yes
Mozambique Mcel Yes
Myanmar Telenor Yes Yes
Myanmar MPT Yes
Nauru Digicel Yes
Nepal Ncell Yes Yes
Niger Airtel Yes
Nigeria Airtel Yes
Pakistan Telenor Yes
Pakistan Zong Yes
Panama Digicel Yes Yes
Peru Bitel Yes Yes
Peru Entel Yes
Philippines Globe Yes
Philippines Smart Yes
Republic of Congo Airtel Yes
Rwanda MTN Yes Yes
Rwanda Airtel Yes
Saint Lucia Digicel Yes
Saint Lucia Flow Yes
Senegal Tigo Yes
Serbia Telenor Yes
Seychelles Airtel Yes
South Africa Cell C Yes
Sri Lanka Dialog No Yes
St Kitts Digicel Yes
St Kitts Flow Yes
St Vincent Digicel Yes
St. Lucia Digicel Yes
St. Vincent & the Grenadines Digicel Yes
Suriname Digicel Yes Yes
Tajikistan Tcell Yes Yes
Tajikistan Babilon-Mobile Yes Yes
Tanzania Tigo Yes
Tanzania Airtel Yes
Thailand dtac Yes
Thailand DTAC Yes
Thailand TrueMove Yes
Timor-Leste Telkomcel Yes
Tonga Digicel Yes
Trinidad and Tobago Digicel Yes Yes
Tunisia Tunisie Telecom Yes
Turks and Caicos Islands Digicel Yes
Turks and Caicos Islands Flow Yes
Vanuatu Digicel Yes
Vanuatu Telecom Yes
Zambia Airtel Yes

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Fitchard, Kevin (January 6, 2014). "AT&T launches "Sponsored Data," inviting content providers to pay consumers’ mobile data bills". Gigaom. Retrieved July 3, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Zero Rating and the Open Internet | Mitchell's Blog". blog.lizardwrangler.com. Retrieved 2015-08-22. 
  3. ^ "Zero rating poses a conundrum for net neutrality advocates around the world". Retrieved 2015-08-22. 
  4. ^ "Less than Zero — Backchannel". Medium. Retrieved 2015-08-22. 
  5. ^ "Why 'zero rating' is the new battleground in net neutrality debate". Retrieved 2015-08-23. 
  6. ^ "Facebook’s plan to find its next billion users: convince them the internet and Facebook are the same". Retrieved 2015-08-23. 
  7. ^ Pahwa, Nikhil (August 20, 2015). "Google joins Facebook in trying to prevent IAMAI from taking strong anti-Zero Rating stand". Medianama. Retrieved August 23, 2015. 
  8. ^ "Smartphone internet usage price ranking EU28 mobile network operators – Q1 2014". Rewheel. June 17, 2014. Retrieved July 25, 2014. 
  9. ^ Santo, Brian (June 5, 2014). "In Perspective: Flexinets". CED. Retrieved July 3, 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Drossos, Antonios (April 26, 2014). "Forget fast lanes. The real threat for net-neutrality is zero-rated content". Gigaom. Retrieved July 3, 2014. 
  11. ^ Zuckerberg, Mark (August 20, 2013). "Is Connectivity a Human Right?" (PDF). Facebook.com. Retrieved May 14, 2016. 
  12. ^ Morris, Anne (January 11, 2014). "For zero-rated deals, OTT providers can no longer assume the carrier will pay". Fierce Wireless Europe. Retrieved July 3, 2014. 
  13. ^ Mirani, Leo (May 30, 2014). "Less than zero – When net neutrality backfires: Chile just killed free access to Wikipedia and Facebook". Quartz. Retrieved July 2, 2014. 
  14. ^ McKenzie, Jessica (June 2, 2014). "Face Off in Chile: Net Neutrality v. Human Right to Facebook & Wikipedia". Retrieved July 2, 2014. 
  15. ^ "Wolverton: Battle for net neutrality isn't over". www.mercurynews.com. Retrieved 2016-02-29. 
  16. ^ "T-Mobile's latest 'Un-carrier' feature: Rhapsody Unradio, an odd streaming music service.". June 18, 2014. Retrieved June 19, 2014. 
  17. ^ "T-Mobile Stops Counting Netflix, HBO, Hulu, And Other Video Streams Against Your Data Usage". November 10, 2015. Retrieved December 30, 2015. 
  18. ^ Tonner, Andrew. "Verizon Joins AT&T in This Controversial Net Neutrality Practice -- The Motley Fool". The Motley Fool. Retrieved 2016-02-29. 
  19. ^ Tonner, Andrew. "Verizon Joins AT&T in This Controversial Net Neutrality Practice – The Motley Fool". The Motley Fool. Retrieved 2016-02-29. 
  20. ^ Wu, Tim. "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination". Columbia University - Law School. SSRN 388863Freely accessible. 
  21. ^ Sachson, Thomas (August 10, 2010). "Application Activity System USPTO 20120036051". US Patent Office. Retrieved December 9, 2014. 
  22. ^ Gillmor, Dan (June 6, 2014). "A government ruled for net neutrality. Too bad it wasn't your government". The Guardian. Retrieved July 25, 2014. 
  23. ^ Reardon, Marguerite (February 26, 2016). "Can unlimited video really be that bad?". Retrieved March 10, 2016. 
  24. ^ MacDonald, Raegan (August 8, 2014). "Wikipedia Zero and net neutrality: Wikimedia turns its back on the open internet". access. Retrieved August 15, 2014. 
  25. ^ Taylor, Kate (5 May 2017). "Is exempting Cancon from data charges the best way to promote it?". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 6 May 2017. 
  26. ^ a b "Mobile partnerships - Wikimedia Foundation". Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved 2017-01-19. 
  27. ^ "Where we’ve launched – English". Internet.org. Retrieved 2017-01-19.