Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian American entrepreneur turned academic, has been called one of the world’s top thinkers on tech policy. Neelam Raaj spoke to the Stanford University fellow on the ongoing controversy over Facebook’s Free Basics plan
What did you think of Mark Zuckerberg’s defence of Free Basics in TOI? Were you convinced by his case for digital equality which cited the example of a farmer named Ganesh, who would be able to access weather information, commodity prices, etc?
Zuckerberg doesn’t realize that Ganesh cherishes the freedom that India gained from its British colonizers in 1947 and doesn’t want a handout from a western company. Ganesh may be poor, but he doesn’t want anyone to dictate what sites he can visit, what movies he may watch, or what applications he can download.
Zuckerberg is right about the benefits of internet access: it will enable village artisans to access global markets; farmers to learn about weather and commodity prices; and labourers and domestic help to find work through sharing-economy applications.
But here is the problem with Free Basics: the internet access on offer is not unrestricted. Facebook and the mobile carriers get to decide what websites people can visit, and Facebook becomes the centre of the internet universe. Zuckerberg compares this limited service to libraries and hospitals. But imagine a private corporation being allowed to decide which books your children could read and which videos they could watch — and to monitor everything that they did. Would you accept that?
The aggressive nature of FB’s campaign in India has surprised many. Will the fate of net neutrality here have a global impact?
This is not an Indian issue; we are fighting these battles in the US. The Federal Communications Commission enacted rules in March 2015 to require broadband providers to treat all data equally rather than provide preference to some sites. A federal appeals court is challenging these rules at the behest of the telecommunications industry.
Google has the same motivations as Facebook — to bring billions more people online. But it is pursuing a more sensible strategy: it is setting up fast and free Wi-Fi internet access points at 400 railroad stations all over India. Facebook could one-up Google by setting up access points at thousands of schools, libraries, and villages. This “no strings attached” approach would earn it gratitude — and signups — rather than resentment.
If the solution to making internet connectivity accessible to everyone isn’t Free Basics, then what is it?
The ultimate solution, unrestricted internet for everyone, is something that Facebook, Google, and others are already working on providing, via drones, balloons, and micro satellites.
With its Aquila Unmanned Aircraft and laser technologies, Facebook has demonstrated the ability to deliver data at a rate of tens of gigabytes per second to a target the size of a coin — from 10 miles away. This is ten times faster than existing land-based technologies. With interconnected drones, it will, within two or three years, most likely be able to provide internet access to the remotest regions of the world.
Google is further ahead in its efforts. Its balloons, called Loons, are essentially floating cell towers that can relay a signal to a mobile device on the ground.
And then there are low-orbit micro satellites, which Oneweb, SpaceX, and now Samsung are building. These beam internet signals by laser to ground stations.
Google is launching Loons in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It was also supposed to launch them in India, but India’s defence, aviation, and telecom ministries raised technical and security concerns and stopped the project. When the telecom providers figure out that with unlimited, inexpensive internet access, their cell and data businesses will be decimated, they too will place obstacles in the way of these technologies.
This, therefore, is the real battle that Facebook should be fighting. If the goal is to provide everyone with internet access, Facebook and the internet-freedom groups that it is fighting should be working together to lobby for a change in government policies — for when the new space-based technologies are ready.
Which tech advance are you most excited about in 2016?
To start with, let’s look at what happened in 2015. Knowledge became globalized, with one quarter of India’s population gaining access to the internet (this is without Free Basics). And then, the medical revolution got in high gear with inexpensive medical devices that connect to smartphones and incredible breakthroughs in genomics. Just watch over the next few years as our smartphones become doctors.
Most important of all, in 2015, we reached a tipping point in clean energy, with solar and battery storage becoming affordable and practical.
By 2030, all of India will have off-the-grid clean energy and this will be cheaper than cellphone calls. India won’t need the nuclear plants that it is purchasing.
Next up, starting in 2016, we will see amazing advances in robotics, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, internet of things, and the space race.