Free Basics – The Makings of Branded Internet

By on December 31, 2015

Free Basics  –  The Makings of Branded Internet

  • How free is Free? //  Who decides the Basics?

Man is condemned to be free – Jean Paul Satre

It can be argued that mankind has never been truly free and that many have chosen their own poisons or construct their own prisons, with the trappings of work place, gated community dwellings etc (aka walled gardens of today’s internet era) –  the trappings of living seemingly free. If so were the case, then why not let the internet be as it is and each to his own creativity or poison, than circumvent the same with new rules.

Facebook’s ongoing ‘Free basics’ ad blitz is possibly propping up this very dream –  and is doing so very vividly. Backed with the promise and benefits of connectivity for masses (not just the privileged few), it does a brilliant execution on both narration and rendition, with Mark Zuckerberg positioned as the voice of the masses for connectivity and digital equality (and a fine print that leaves much to be understood, on costs, speeds, places one can visit, walls that will keep out more than what the mind and eyes of the avg netizen can/will see for now, etc etc). A bold strategy for sure indeed and if it works – Mark Zuckerberg has clearly created history (yet again, as a marketing genius this time). For he would be credited with changing (i) the rules of net neutrality (ii) for heralding the advent of branded internet and (iii) for kicking of the leadership battle for ‘share of internet’ in the times to come.

And yet several  question remain:

  1. As to how credible is this campaign strategy (levaraging Mark Z)
  2. How credible is the very idea of “free basics” – in the realm of the net neutrality debates, and the many truths, half truths and fears that seemingly are there with free basics
  3. Is free basics attempting a back door entry to zero rating by adopting a socialist, philantrophic and charity based approach – coming across as the champion of digital divide issues, and
  4. Above all, is it an attempt to brazenly mislead and influence the regulators (via enlisted campaign supporters) to its end point gain of at least part owning the internet and thereby own/ lock/ ring fence its customers of today and tomorrow, while going all out for leadership share of internet and mind share gains

The internet of y’day and today has no prioritization. Netizens are not told what they can watch or should / could do on the internet. They are left open to the variances of web browsing or video consumptions and to their own volition. So why change all that from tomorrow? It has worked, fostered creativity and allowed many many new ideas to flourish. Competition, collaboration, co creation, coopetition have all stood and are standing the test of time. Will this get better in the walled gardens and branded internet era. We honestly don’t know!

And so prompts many straight questions – as to why and for what true purpose is free basics seeking to impact:  Some these questions are not new in the net neutrality debates and go as :

  • Does free basics violate net neutrality?
  • Is free in free basics just a marketing gimmick?
  • Will I be comprising freedom if I chose free basics?
  • Will it distort free and fair competition?
  • Is free basics a euphemism for zero rating?
  • The Internet is an open space, will free basics change that?
  • What about privacy, freedom of expression and  the fact that on internet ‘all bits are created equal?
  • Is  free basics a Reverse proxy of free internet ? Motivated to build a cozy club of face book alliance and partner companies only
  • And above all will free basics kill competition?

In many ways the internet has come to symbolize a higher order democracy form and possibly offers more democratic opportunities than the constitutions of the many large democracies themselves (India included)  and/ or religious nations. Has been a great leveller, to say the least. Innuendoes to equality, equity and neutrality exists as with the physical world and parallels are drawn as convenient. However, while democracy has evolved over several generations and has been shaped by forces of good over bad, justices, legislators etc, the internet is still a baby and gets its legitimacy more by the  forces that have (unconsciously) shaped it, namely: consumers, scientists/ technologists/ marketers/ products, services, hackers, etc –  who are all leading it up to the emerging world of IOT, big data, AI, connected intelligence, machine thinking, VR, etc .

And so the debates and views go on. To elaborate:

  • Likely the answers to all the above questions are both a yes and a no, and that’s precisely why some of the internet technology/ marketing / strategy stakeholders are working overboard to get going on branded internet  to a logic of making it happen – on  a more ‘when’ then ‘if’ strategy. The answers to some these questions also possibly lie in understanding the emerging era of IOT and what the likely fears/ concerns  of Mark Z and the likes are – to be championing free basics – head on.  But before we go into the future era of internet lets let’s step back and see what the internet is/ has done and has become:
  • In many way the internet has been like a Mother Hen that lays golden eggs. It has allowed and has been laying golden egg(s) ever since on a daily basis (taking in sans any solicitations, myriad users with different avatars). Some of these eggs (and at least +100) are the likes of whatsapp, face book, google, linkedin , instagram, twitter, pinterest, you tube, amazon, snapchat, etc., that are all now dinosaur sized billion dollar golden eggs –  billion dollar eggs of the magnitude that no one could predict – neither their size nor their impact even just ~ 10 years ago. They have all happened with connectivity as the single largest driving force and by the forces of customer adoption, technology advances and powerful connecting platforms – prompting the emergence of connected intelligence and big data –  and the new opportunities that this era is set forth to bring via revolutionary game changing new devices, SM platforms, virtual reality devices, wearable tech etc).
  • At no time has the Mother Hen (internet) rendered biases, fostered quotas or doled out favours to any one player over other. It has ensured to an arm’s length logic, that all bits are created equal – so that new age entrepreneurs, basis their ingenuity and imagination could grow, impact and prosper (beyond imagination). And now the baby golden eggs have humongously grown. Some even wanting to become mother hens themselves (and in many ways is like the all familiar story of the hen and golden egg) –  in that they can own the mother hen and /or  select where and to whom the future golden eggs could belong (rather than deal with new and free radical  type disruptions and face biz risks). And so in many ways, are the attempts to recast the internet to one’s own strategic comfort and benefits – involving what customers, can see, exp, visit etc – and as best possible, hold them to their own pipes, platforms, engagements, then risk them to see something better, new and  migrate to newer golden eggs that mother hen keeps offering. Imagine for a minute should mother hen have played favourites to Lykos or my space –  would the likes of google / facebook have emerged at all? Maybe yes/ maybe not. But Mother Hen has/ had no favourites –  she just saw to it that all bits n bytes are created equal (-  & not to mention the moral of the golden eggs story, if it is of any relevance here).
  • So why do these very significantly large benefactors of internet want to change the rules and why has owning a private internet (of own) become so very important? Is future survival of these companies somewhat at risk? Are product life cycles under threat? Is there a prognosis that face book type products could/ would become irrelevant in the coming few years. Then there are the obvious investor/ stock market pressures and the compounding need to survive and grow, that cannot be ignored.
  • I would like to believe so –  for products  and marketing history has revealed that product life cycles in the tech space have significantly lower life spans than those 15 years ago, than those 25 years ago,  etc. It’s no secret that some of these companies have seen the writing and are furiously battling to recast the shape – to survive in the emerging order of IOT. Given the multi billion dollar type mega acquisition of the types of whatsapp, Oculus VR etc, the future is at stake for everyone
  • The new sm networking platforms of today are truly golden as long as customers are latched on to them – but to be expected in the realm of social media connectivity – so as long as the millions and billions of customers are on and transacting, interacting etc on their platforms, they are invaluable to advertisers and other such services seeking to communicate with large customer clusters of this nature in cost effective ways. And should customers choose to move out over time the platforms run the risk of being forgotten and are but empty pipes/ spaces, and lose valuations that would but plummet

Ergo, it just seems to be the story of –  It ain’t broke, fix it any way… And for now, lead up to the path of the nice walled gardens of future while playing to the galleries, viz.,  free, basic education, health, equality and more…  The same (whether its free basics or zero rating) could also be done by directly crediting customers with discounts, talk times, freebies etc to their respective accounts too. But this is plain yeoman service and not what the branded internet is to be all about.

On balance, this appears to be but just round 1 (for now). Likely there will be 11 more rounds at least ahead… And likely the only question to my mind  (and for sure for the regulators) is “whether the egg today is better than the hen tomorrow (Benjamin Franklin)” whence Mother Hen continues to lay her golden eggs as before or do we see something on the lines of several mother hens that want to smother each other in the future to lay their choicest eggs … &

To recall what somebody  said ‘the present is an egg laid by the past that had the future inside it’s shell’  /// Whatever may be the final result, Mark Zuckerberg is beyond awesome: for trying, for ingenuity,  for imagination…

The Biggest risk is not taking any risks… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks…     Mark Zuckerberg












About Subba Rao NV

Subbarao is an entrepreneur, management professional and a hands-on business leader with +20 years exp in consumer goods, tele-communications, wireless applications/ solutions and retail sectors, where he has handled large teams and multi unit businesses. Earlier he held VP- Sales & Marketing, COO/ CEO/ Apex positions at TATA Docomo, Bharti Airtel, Tanla Solutions and Conagra Foods (India). Having started at P&G as a management trainee, he has worked and led over 25 brands. Over the years he has lived and worked in different geographies including US, Japan and Vietnam, while holding p&l and growth responsibilities for market & value share leadership. In 2012 Co-founded Reboot Systems (India), a refurbished computers business - set up the brand, business and retail/ franchisee store model. After successfully exiting same (03/2015), is working to launch and establish his next start up - ( a platform based integrated 'jobs-skills one stop portal - presently in development stage'), to find a way out of skill-gap issues and to address the problems of skill-divide. Subbarao is also a member of Hyderabad Angels and a charter member of TIE and in his spare time runs a blog called best matters. [ email: ]

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