Only Those in Washington Can Stir Controversy Over Free Data

Black and Hispanic communities languishing on the margins of economic and political power have long had to confront problems that other groups don't have to think about nearly as much: poorly funded schools, neglected parks, outdated libraries and even an absence of grocery stores and supermarkets stocked with healthy food, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Now, with the internet an indispensable tool of modern life, the isolation of low-income communities has grown even more pronounced, leaving individuals in these communities with little or no access to a trove of important online offerings ranging from government services and educational opportunities to consumer goods and services.

It's against the backdrop of this so-called digital divide that nonprofit groups and government agencies have implemented programs that expand online access for low-income individuals and communities. The latest effort, interestingly enough, is being driven by companies, through programs that blend business interest with good consumer service.

All four national wireless carriers are offering a variety of programs that enable free access to an assortment of online content; all via mobile devices like smartphones, which are a common - sometimes the only - onramp for minority and low-income consumers to access the Internet.

The idea is pretty simple and time tested, albeit not in the wireless space. Companies that want to drive traffic to their content foot the bill for consumers to access it. Under these free-data plans, consumers visiting a site doesn't count against consumers' data plans. It's the modern day equivalent of toll-free calling.

Even though some of the free-data offerings are from content providers running consumer sites, the advantage for people on tight budgets is that they will have additional data for important activities. That could be anything from taking courses online, job searching, applying for government services and the like. You'd think it would be hard to argue with that concept. What's the harm in that?

Yet some so-called consumer groups are protesting these very programs in a classic move of DC advocacy organizations clinging to a principle whether it makes sense or not. In this case, groups are driven by the conviction that free data plans are a violation of so-called net neutrality, a doctrine adopted by the Federal Communications Commission the principle last year to require Internet Service Providers treat all online content the same.

These critics say big companies that can afford to subsidize the data plans of consumers are actually undermining smaller competitors on the web, thereby undercutting the spirit of the net neutrality regulations that the FCC put in place. As a result, these groups are pushing the FCC to prohibit free-data plans, with a degree of organization and energy typically reserved for more high-minded campaigns, like, say, housing and feeding the poor.

The argument they make is absurd, too, as other consumer groups and wireless carriers are quick to point out. The free data plans do not limit or restrict consumers from accessing the content of their choice, a main reason for the net neutrality rules. Nor do they limit or restrict content providers from making available the content of their choice to consumers.

As the debate continues in DC, it's not surprising that a major advocacy voice in the minority community recently jumped into the debate over free data. The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council issued a report earlier this week arguing that free data programs actually help economically disadvantaged Black and Hispanic communities on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Among the conclusions were that free-data programs are especially helpful to African-Americans and Latinos who tend to use wireless devices to access the Internet; meddling by the FCC would likely inhibit companies from experimenting with new kinds of free-data offerings, and a recent survey by CTIA found that 85 percent of consumers recently said they were likely to use more data if it didn't count against their monthly data usage.

MMTC President and Chief Executive Officer Kim Keenan described the critics of free-data plans as "digital elites" who are far more interested in abstract policy principles than real people. Injecting a refreshing bit of commons sense into the debate, she noted that free data is equivalent to toll-free calling. And no one said there was anything wrong with that," she said.

Let's hope the FCC is listening.

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