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Digging into the Data: Is Zero-Rating Connecting the Unconnected?

Mobile stand in Arusha, Tanzania. (Photo: Karolle Rabarison)

We’re excited to share with you the second report in our series on the Impacts of Emerging Mobile Data Services in Developing Countries. The new brief — out today — provides the first large-scale empirical look at what mobile data services people are actually using, and what mobile users think of these services.


As the debate around zero-rated services (like Facebook’s Free Basics, Twitter Access, and Wikipedia Zero) and other emerging mobile data models continues, data around who is using these services, how, and why, has remained woefully scarce. The study, “Mobile Data Services: Exploring User Experiences & Perceived Benefits”, aims to fill that data gap, by presenting findings from a survey of 8,000 mobile Internet users across the eight countries covered in the series — Bangladesh, Colombia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, and the Philippines. The survey was conducted between November 2015 and February 2016 and found:


  • Zero-rating did not bring most mobile Internet users online for the first time. Nearly nine in 10 users surveyed report having used the Internet before accessing it through a zero-rated plan. Numbers of people coming online for the first time via zero-rating were slightly higher in India (15%) and Peru (22%). About 10% of users said they had used zero-rating at least once.
  • Public WiFi is the primary means of connection for one in five users. Most users surveyed (51%) use a full-cost data plan as their primary means of connecting to the Internet and public WiFi was the second most common method of connection (21%), particularly in countries like Peru (40%) and the Philippines (34%). Women are also more likely to use public WiFi.
  • Users typically combine data plans to suit their connectivity needs. In terms of users shifting from use of a zero-rated service to a paid service, 28% of all zero-rating users no longer use a zero-rating plan and are now paying customers (i.e., they now use a full-cost or service-specific plan). In addition, 35% of all zero-rating users continue to use the zero-rated service and a paid plan. 37% continue to use only “no cost” options — that is, their zero-rated service in combination with public WiFi.
  • The vast majority of users (82%) prefer access to the full Internet with time or data limitations, if restrictions are imposed.  Approximately half (48%) of all users said that the restriction they most preferred was a limitation on time (i.e., the free plan would be only be valid for a short time, with no restriction on the websites/apps that could be accessed), while a third of respondents said they would prefer access to all websites/apps, with a restriction on the amount of data that could be used.


Want more detail? Dive into the full report and survey dataset, and if you haven’t done so already, check out the first report in this research series for some background on the different mobile data services offered in each of the eight countries studied.


The survey findings presented here will inform the third and final paper in this series which will, based on consultations with governments, mobile network operators, and civil society organisations, propose a set of guidelines on how mobile data services can improve mobile broadband affordability. Stay tuned and, in the meanwhile, be sure to share your questions, comments and own experiences in the comments below.

2 Responses

  1. Notwithstanding the modest understanding and use levels of free data services currently (although the 37% mixed-use figure is not an insignificant number), from an economic / competition perspective there is great long-term and permanent potential in free / subsidized data platforms that have yet to be rolled out. This is especially true in the field of autonomous toll-free / zero-rated apps where the bandwidth is subsidized in whole (or in part) by the provider of the app and where the mobile carrier plays no role in picking winners or losers (i.e., there is no gatekeeper function by the carrier). But it does require a far more holistic analysis of the mobile ecosystem to appreciate. . . so here goes.

    As an initial matter, with any data subsidy it inherently flows that someone other than the consumer is paying for the data. On this point there is no doubt, and is the source of much contention as it raises questions as to what control or influence the provider of “freeness” has over the end-user consumer.

    But a focus on only these “undue influence” concerns misses the much larger and undeniable point about free data’s economic effect on fostering enhanced digital enablement — specifically that free data platforms have the fundamental ability to shift core economic bargaining power for online engagement squarely to the historically disenfranchised consumer. This is a major point that is often ignored by toll-free / zero-rate advocates and critics alike.

    This pending shift in bargaining power to the consumer will be due to the fact that when a large company gives away free data to encourage online engagement via their own app, other competing companies will respond promptly with even more compelling free data offers in their own apps, thereby creating an upward spiral of freeness for the end-user in pursuit of that consumer’s patronage. This is a very good thing indeed and will result in a large surplus of free data accruing to users of these services. This is free market dynamics at its finest and nicely explains why very few (e.g., my guess is almost zero) low income consumers are complaining about zero-rating / toll-free data implementations — these folks just want / need the free data. But this is only the initial iteration of data freeness.

    Once this free data dynamic is readily appreciated by app providers and end-users alike, one will soon see the emergence of a secondary (and far more powerful) business model where end-user consumers are rewarded with more data than they actually consume in a data sponsored app (e.g., they consume 10 MB via an app but are rewarded with 15 MB back into their mobile accounts to be used freely however they choose — so they get back the 10 MB spent in the app plus 5 MB as a “bonus” to be used elsewhere). As such, I can think of no greater way to empower the consumer to accumulate more free data on a continuous basis than to have it provided by the very entities wishing to competitively engage with them.

    This in turn allows more users to get online and engage not only with established content providers (the parties providing the ever increasing data subsidies), but also the small guys (e.g., the small start-up app provider working out of her Silicon Valley garage who cannot afford to subsidize any data whatsoever). Right now, that same start-up app provider relies on the end-user consumer to pay their mobile carrier with hard earned cash to try out her new app (translation — most people probably won”t try her app). But, where the end-user consumer has an ever growing basket of free data at their disposal — constantly accruing more free data from engaging with more traditional online activities (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo!), then these same end-users would have the means to spend the newly “earned” surplus data on new / experimental services such as a start-up company’s app.

    So a win for the subsidy providers (better app engagement), a win for the start-up (initial app engagement), and a win for the end-user consumer (competitively driven data freeness).

    As such, I believe that when free data is offered in a transparent, user-determined, and thoughtful manner, society will quickly see that competition for engagement (via the distribution of free data) will result in an online ecosystem where most people have ample pools of free data at their disposal to go online when they want and how they want, yet not feel the sting of high monthly data charges. And by the way, this is also the likely solution to the ad blocking problem (e.g., I’ll watch the mobile ad if you at least pay for my data usage when doing so). But that is another comment altogether . . .

  2. John Laprise says:

    Crucially and unfortunately this study was unable to collect data to enable to crosstab income. One consistent argument for zero-rating is that it disproportionately helps those without the means for access by lowering the cost. I hope that future studies might capture this data and address this issue.

    Affordability is the most vexing issue facing advocates of extending Internet access. It would be helpful to know whether zero rating services are or are not a useful tool for addressing this problem.

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