India’s regulators have dealt a major blow to Internet.org, Facebook’s initiative to provide free but limited internet access in the developing world.
The Times of India reports that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has asked Reliance Communications, Facebook’s sole operator partner in India, to halt the Internet.org project. Citing a source, the publication says the regulatory body is debating whether telecom operators should be allowed to price their services differently based on content. However, as of Wednesday morning local time, the service was still accessible to subscribers, according to the Times of India. It reports that Reliance received a notice two weeks ago.
“We are committed to Free Basics [the service provided by Internet.org] and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected,” a Facebook spokesman tells Quartz. He declined to say how long the regulatory body asked Reliance to stop offering the free internet service.
Facebook has ambitious plans to deliver high-speed internet to rural areas via satellites, lasers, and drones. But so far, Internet.org has relied on partnerships with local telco operators in more than 30 countries to provide free internet service.
Tech companies like Facebook and Google see India as a huge untapped market and are aggressively going after new users there, even if it means having to provide them free access. It’s estimated that about 1 billion people in the country lack internet access, and most of them are expected to come online for the first time via cheap mobile phones. In a November call with investors, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg singled out India as the country “that benefits the most from connectivity.” As of last month, Internet.org has connected more than 1 million people in India.
Noble as its intentions may seem, the initiative has also been widely criticized for providing limited access to a select number of sites. Net neutrality activists take issue with this fact, arguing that Facebook and its partners are essentially acting as gatekeepers to the internet for poor people. The service in India is also known to be slow, spotty, and unreliable.
Earlier this month, the company began a campaign asking Facebook users to send messages to India’s telco regulatory body declaring their support for Internet.org. A parliamentary committee is also expected to come out with net neutrality recommendations that would affect programs like Internet.org.