Bringing Transparency to Free Basics: A "Free" Internet for the Developing World


An emerging trend in developing regions is to give users access to certain Internet services for free (or zero-rated) over cellular connections from phones. This can help bring the Internet to users who otherwise could not afford to access it, and potentially attract future paying subscribers. An important question, however, is what is the quality of these free Internet services?

In this work, we seek to answer this question along dimensions that include service availability, service quality, and network performance. We do so by focusing on one popular free service: Facebook’s or FreeBasics (official Facebook page). By partnering with telecom providers in some of these developing countries (countrylist), the Facebook FreeBasics program offers a set of free Internet services in these regions, with the cost borne by telecom providers.

The approach of providing a subset of Internet services to users for free has generated tremendous debate in developing countries, as there are questions about what is made free and at what (non-monetary) cost to users. That said, most of the debates are qualitative or theoretical in nature. In this project, our goal is to provide quantitative data, through careful experimentation, measurement and analysis, to inform these debates.

Research Directions

The project has two main research directions, as follows:

Assessing FreeBasics:

The Freebasics program has a complicated architecture, with multiple stakeholders - (a) the mobile users in developing countries who access this program, (b) the telecom providers who provide the free internet connectivity, (c) Facebook, which maintains the infrastructure to monitor free-vs-paid accesses and (d) web service providers, who provide the subset of free web services included in the program. The first goal of the project is to bring as much transparency to this complicated system as possible. Some example questions of interest are:
  • what web services are on offer in the different countries? Are they in English or local languages? Is this free service list growing over time?
  • what is the procedure to get a web service included in the Freebasics free service list? How much influence does Facebook have in this decision process?
  • what is the network architecture of Freebasics and how does data flow between the actual web service providers and the mobile end-users? Are there privacy concerns for the web service provider, or the mobile end user, because of the involvement of Facebook in the data path?
  • what is the network service quality experienced by the free web services? How does it compare to paid versions of the same services at the same location and time, with the same telecom provider?
  • Leveraging FreeBasics:

    Freebasics claims to create a platform to reach out to new users, who have traditionally remained out of the reach of internet. Understanding this novel user base in these developing countries, using Freebasics as a platform, might give new insights for many interesting research questions, like:
  • what kind of mobile devices do these people use, looking at what devices they use to access Freebasics?
  • what kind of web services do these people like, giving them a choice of free web services and seeing the time spent and visit patterns?
  • are these people well conversant in English and with web interactions like browsing and clicking, which might be interesting for the HCI research community?
  • Research Methodology

    The complicated architecture of Freebasics, and the general lack of presence of the targeted countries in traditional social media, make measurements challenging. Some of the fun methods we are employing in our work, are as follows:
  • recruit participants in as many different countries as possible, to get a holistic view of the program in different places
  • reducing load on participants, to take part in any measurement, e.g. the list of available services in different languages is collected automatically by our android app, which the participant just has to install and run
  • hosting our own web services (e.g. learnbasics, newsbugle), as part of the Freebasics free services. This is allowing us to get an insider's view of the application process and do fine-grained network measurements and user bahavior analysis at the web server
  • Publications

    Inspecting the Free Bridge Across the Digital Divide: Assessing the Quality of Facebook's Free Basics Service [Paper, Slides, Pratice talk]
    Rijurekha Sen, Hasnain Ali Pirzada, Amreesh Phokeer, Zaid Ahmed Farooq, Satadal Sengupta, David Choffnes, and Krishna P. Gummadi. To appear in Proceedings of the 16th ACM Internet Measurement Conference (IMC'16), Santa Monica, CA, November 2016.


    Max Planck Institute for Software Systems (MPI-SWS) Northeastern University
    Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi (IIIT-D) IIT Kharagpur
    We are also working with an excellent set of interns and students in different countries where Freebasics is offered, who are helping us in creating experimental setups and running measurements. Amreesh Phokeer, Hasnain Ali Pirzada, Taslim Arefin Khan are some of them.