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“Free Basics” – does it really matter to the poor in Panchagrami?

ShriramVenkatraman27 December 2015

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

The launch of Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’, a rebranding of internet.org, has been a hot topic in India for the past few months as Facebook tries to grow its second largest user base (over 130 million), slightly more than a quarter of all the people who are online in India. By providing free internet through the Free Basics package, Facebook are aiming to get around 1 billion people online in a march towards digital equality. However, the service has been criticised as it will only promote select sites, thus compromising net neutrality.

This past week, Free Basics has been in the news again since the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), has asked Facebook’s Indian partner, Reliance Communications, to put the roll-out of Free Basics on hold until it reviews the service.

While Free Basics is designed for people who can’t afford an internet connection, does the delay actually matter to the poor in our Indian fieldsite, Panchagrami*? The issues surrounding Free Basics have made the news in India, however this post explores the topic from the perspective of the poor in Panchagrami and is not an argument either for Free Basics or for net neutrality.

A significant discovery to arise from our fieldwork across nine different fieldsites in eight countries was that digital equality does not necessarily mean offline social equality. Instead, we found that both influence each other and are complexly interwoven. So, while web companies may see technology or access to the internet as a panacea for all social evils, they unfortunately often don’t consider wider complexities or see how social issues like gender equality and illiteracy are actually integral to digital equality.

Taking into consideration discoveries from our fieldwork, here are five reasons why the launch of Free Basics might not matter to the poor in Panchagrami:

Illiteracy: On average, a poor household in Panchagrami might possess one, or a maximum of two, used non-smart (feature) phones, whose primary purpose is voice communication. This limited use of mobile technology is not only down to more advanced communication tools being inaccessible, but also due to the illiteracy of users. In our fieldwork we came across many cases where a text message had to be read by someone other than the phone’s owner (especially when the owner was a woman). Although literacy among younger generations seems to be on the rise (with people often staying in education until the 5th grade), literacy still needs to improve for people to be able to send text messages, let alone use the internet.

Women and PhonesCaste issues and strict social surveillance of young unmarried women often makes it difficult for them to access phones, let alone use the internet.  There is a prevalent social notion that access to phones might endanger a woman’s chastity. Unmarried young women with school education have the highest potential to access the internet of all the people in our fieldsite, but are cut off from tools to gain such access. Once married they may gain the right to own a phone, yet access to the internet might still be guarded by their in-laws.

News and SocialityAccess to news/information is quoted as an important features of the Free Basics scheme. However, for the poor in Panchagrami access to information and news are generally through a set of entirely different channels. While news pertaining to people’s everyday needs is often passed through word of mouth, access to news for men is often through the “corner tea shop culture” that has long existed in Tamil Nadu, where people meet to drink tea, read newspapers, and partake in informal debates about daily news. Listening to such debates forms an important learning culture for the illiterate poor men in Panchagrami. Further, people still do rely on Panchayat offices (local village council offices) to pass on policy news that affects them. Aural learning assumes more importance than textual learning for this group.

Entertainment: People in Panchagrami normally combat boredom by listening to songs from films and watching television (freely provided by the government). Film songs are typically bought cheaply from phone recharge booths by an individual and then shared with others. Since the latest and the best songs are bought and shared this way, people do not need to access the internet to enjoy their favoured forms of entertainment. Even if they did, the Free Basics package does not provide them with a site to download such songs.

Infrastructure: Reliance Communications is not a popular telecom provider in Panchagrami. Competitors such as Airtel, Aircel, and Vodafone occupy the biggest share of telecom services used by the poor in Panchagrami. Hence, offering the Free Basics package on Reliance won’t necessarily reach the poor, as they don’t use this provider.

In conclusion, the Free Basics scheme might have an affect on India’s telecom policies, but its intended benefits for the really poor warrant further study, since currently it does not seem to make a difference to their lives, at least for people in Panchagrami.

* Panchagrami is the pseudonym of a peri-urban site located just outside the limits of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where the author spent fifteen months studying the impact of social media on the lives of people.

Freebies and socioeconomic indicators

ShriramVenkatraman14 July 2013

Photo by Rajib Ghosh (Creative Commons

Photo by Rajib Ghosh (Creative Commons)

The use of socioeconomic indicators in surveys is well documented. While conducting a sample survey in the Indian field site (Tamil Nadu), it slowly emerged that some variables used as socioeconomic indicators were going awry. Even in the most poor localities, almost every house had two television sets, a grinder, a mixie (a mixer), and if the household had a member in college or higher secondary school, it had a laptop and everyone had a mobile phone (though at least this was not too surprising after reading the book The Cell Phone Nation)

What was available only to the middle class 5 or 6 years ago and was a luxury to the poor was now with the poor too. It seemed like a puzzle and the answer lay in the election manifestos of different political parties which promised (and to a certain extent delivered) ‘freebies’ if elected to power in the state of Tamil Nadu. It seemed like a competition between which party could promise the most free stuff. Though, several articles had appeared in journals/newspapers speaking about the effect that all this had created, the survey served as the right opportunity to witness this first hand.

New socioeconomic indicators seemed to be needed now to assess the real conditions in the field site. The thought of reassessing the field site with newer advanced socioeconomic indicators soon emerged and it was exactly like putting together a puzzle until one crucial and basic/foundational piece fitting all of these together was missing and that crucial piece turned out to be electricity – the electricity needed to run/operate any of these electrical products. Everything else seemed to be in place except for the electricity supply, which was either missing for several hours of a day or was fluctuating constantly, sometimes even killing some of these electrical products.

The lesson we can ear from this is to never assume basic necessities are in place just by seeing all the paraphernalia.

Locating the ‘previously thought extinct’ Brazilian dongle

JulianoAndrade Spyer3 June 2013

Photo by Juliano Spyer

“Who uses a dongle nowadays?” was the question that crossed my mind when I heard Shriram mentioning that these devices represented an important means by which many Indian people connected to the internet. In my world, dongles used as wireless modems belonged to the past. What was the point of using a dongle if mobiles could do the trick when people find themselves in a place where broadband is not available?

Not very long after arriving at my field site here in Brazil, a friend took me on a short car trip to outside of the urbanised area in which I now live.

Soon after we left we arrived in a rural area. There were small properties on both sides of the road but houses were not always visible due to the vegetation and the abundance of large fruit trees that most properties have.

Suddenly my friend and I saw a sign, shown in the above photo, saying: “I assemble and give maintenance to computers”. It was not just the content of the message that seemed interesting but also its format: a handmade painted sign, something very different from the type of aesthetics associated with computers and technology today.

We stopped in front of the entrance to the site and I clapped. I wanted to know who was the person offering that kind of service.

After a bit of waiting, a women came to talk to me. She was naturally intrigued and suspicious. “City-folks” like us, people that look like tourists, do not need to have that kind of service there. But she was helpful and called her 20 year old daughter to talk to us.

I was surprised to find that it was a young woman, rather than a man, who was offering that service. Computers are usually associated with young men. She told me she had attended some short technical courses and had also learned from experience playing with her own computer.

But why would someone have a computer there? What kind of internet connection did they have? – “Unlocked dongles”, she promptly replied. The dongle allowed sim-cards to be directly connected to the computer.

– “At our own home we have two such dongles, and there are many neighbors using the same solution,” she added.

If other solutions  are not available or are not affordable, this mobile provider allows a monthly connection for as low as 10 reais (close to 3.30 pounds). And the client did not have to buy the dongle from the mobile provider as unlocked equipment can be purchased for around 100 reais or 33 pounds.

Facebook users: do they turn up at polling booths in India?

ShriramVenkatraman12 April 2013

Photo by Yogesh Mhatre (Creative Commons)

Photo by Yogesh Mhatre (Creative Commons)

An Indian national daily newspaper carried an interesting article recently, on how Facebook users can change the election results in India. It spoke about the impact on digital campaigning that political parties in India were adapting in order to woo supporters.

Based on several sources on Facebook statistics, it would be safe to assume that an average of 60 million people (approx. 5% of Indian population) from India are on Facebook and it would be safe to assume from various other data sources that at least 50% of them are youth and most of them are educated middle class Indians.

Similarly, on an average, from popular news reports it is evident that the voter turnout during elections is between 70 to 75%. However, it is most often criticized that these voters are mostly from the poorer strata of Indian society (both rural and urban) and the numbers constitute very few educated Indian middle class. Further, Indian middle class are also constantly criticized for being armchair critics.

How many of these poor who vote are on Facebook? While numbers at a top level may seem to be significant, they lose significance when diving deep to understand the constitution of the group which finally decides Indian political leadership.

While it is definitely interesting to see the digital campaigning strategies adopted by political parties, these only constitute 50%, the rest is on making sure that the impact created by these strategies turn into votes.  It would be interesting to see how many of these Facebook users turn up at the polling stations, which would truly demonstrate the impact of digital campaigning.