Net neutrality advocates should not deprive consumers of sponsored data programs

By 2020, the number of people throughout the world who have mobile phones is expected to exceed the number of people who have running water, electricity, or cars, according to a new report by Cisco.

Smartphones in particular have become one of the most successful innovations of our time, offering us access to endless streams of information and rich content at the tap of an app. Online content is now more dynamic and eye-catching than ever before, and Cisco predicts that in less than 5 years, 75 percent of all mobile data traffic will be video.

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These points are emblematic of the shift to an increasingly mobile society.  Everything – from home appliances, to cars, to clothes – are becoming connected, and data use is surging.  Wireless providers and other companies are noticing this change and responding with “sponsored data” programs that give consumers much-needed flexibility to consume more without paying more.

Whether it be Verizon’s FreeBee, T-Mobile’s BingeOn, or a similar alternative, the idea is that companies like ESPN or Facebook will cover the cost of accessing their content so consumers don’t have to.  As a result, consumers have more available data at their disposal.

Research already indicates that consumers overwhelmingly support sponsored data programs, with 90 percent of respondents in a recent survey of T-Mobile customers saying that they approve of the carrier’s BingeOn program.  As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the end of last year in an op-ed for The Times of India while defending his company’s Free Basics program, “Who could possibly be against this?”

Earlier this month, India’s telecom regulator banned Facebook’s program, which was designed to bring more people online.  The action was touted as a win for net neutrality, but as the Wall Street Journal editorial board put it, “India’s elite would rather let the majority of the population lose out than open a new market to a foreign competitor.” 

Here in the U.S., elites are criticizing sponsored data programs too.  The irony in all of it is that they fought tooth and nail for net neutrality to protect consumers and create more competition.  Now, companies are rolling out and expanding offerings to give consumers what they want: free data.  If the elites and other critics can’t recognize that as competition helping consumers, I don’t know what they do recognize. 

The unfortunate reality is that if they successfully halt or obstruct sponsored data programs, it’ll be extremely detrimental to minority and low-income wireless consumers.       

Pew data shows that African American, Latino, and low-income communities are not only disproportionately smartphone dependent, but they are also more likely to let their service lapse because of financial challenges.  Sponsored data offerings should help them keep their bills in check while still getting access to the applications and services they need.  Those applications and services extend far beyond email and social media and often serve as lifelines to valuable information about their health, taking a class, and searching for as well as applying for a job.

At the end of the day, the benefit of sponsored data is plain and simple.  Give consumers what they want: free data.  It certainly isn’t a new concept as it evolved from well-known practices like toll-free calls.  Policymakers in the U.S. should recognize this.  Rather than follow India, we should let sponsored data programs continue evolving for the good of consumers.   

White is head of DiverseTech and a former special assistant at the White House.

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