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Policy Guidelines for the Regulation of Zero-Rated Services

Mobile phone and internet point in Burkina Faso
Mobile phone and internet point in Burkina Faso (Photo: Carsten ten Brink, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As efforts to connect the unconnected advance, new mobile data services offering “free” or otherwise subsidised consumer access to the internet have emerged. At the same time, debate around such services — and zero-rated services in particular — has intensified, leading many governments around the world to question whether or not to intervene when a mobile network operator (MNO) decides to offer a zero-rated service. Our latest research brief, “Policy Guidelines for Affordable Mobile Data Services”, aims to provide some policy guidance to governments tackling this decision.


Released today, this report — the third and final research brief in our series on the Impacts of Emerging Mobile Data Services in Developing Countries — outlines a set of proposed policy and regulatory guidelines for the provision of zero-rated and other mobile data services in low- and middle-income countries. The guidelines presented in this report draw on the research findings of the previous two research briefs, including a survey of 8,000 mobile users in Bangladesh, Colombia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, and the Philippines, as well as a set of interviews with civil society organisations, mobile phone operators, academics, regulators, and government representatives across the eight countries studied.


The policy guidelines presented in this latest report recognise that there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the regulation of these services, but offer a broad set of policy and regulatory recommendations for working to ensure that the mobile data services on offer work to benefit citizens and expand affordable internet access.


The real deliberation and decision-making around mobile data services must ultimately be based on national context and involve a meaningful dialogue between the government, MNOs and other private sector entities, local civil society, and citizens. Broadly, we recommend the following steps:

  • Policymakers should evaluate strategies to foster connectivity at the national level and try to identify the most sustainable option(s). Thus, countries should consider the extent to which mobile data services are compatible with their unique legal and socio-economic context, considering in particular the best ways to promote competition and innovation in ICT markets and protecting freedom of expression and media diversity, while also advancing broader connectivity goals.
  • Policy guidelines for mobile data services should first ensure that these services are aligned with national broadband goals.
  • Where a country is considering intervention, the regulator should carefully assess the best approach. In many cases, ex post regulation (i.e., intervene only if and when there is evidence of harm) will suffice. However, this depends on pre-existing levels of competition in the MNO markets, as well as the capacity and resources of the regulator.


Be sure to read the full report and policy guidelines, or catch up on the research findings of the previous two reports in the series. Questions? Ideas? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below!

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