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Free Basics hits roadblocks in India and Egypt

Facebook’s Free Basics continues to be beset by problems, with Egypt imposing a ban on the service while Indian tech companies balk over zero-rating concerns.

While Free Basics launched in Egypt just 2 months ago in partnership with Etisalat, Facebook has not renewed the requisite permits to offer the service and the Egyptian government has accordingly blocked access to it.

Meanwhile in India, a reported 9 technology start-up firms have sent a written request to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) in which they urge the regulator not to permit differentiated pricing for internet access. The companies include online recharge provider Paytm, which is backed by Alibaba.

“There is no reason to create a digital divide by offering a walled garden of limited services in the name of providing access to the poor,” reads the request. Critics have claimed that Free Basics violates net neutrality principles by providing free access to prescribed web content via mobile devices – including Facebook’s site.

At the tail-end of December 2015, TRAI instructed Reliance Communications – Facebook’s Indian operating partner – to suspend its roll-out of the Free Basics initiative while it pressed the social media giant for more details about how the zero-rating service will work.

The regulator also solicited feedback on the concept from across the Indian telecoms industry. While it claimed to have received a record-breaking number of replies to this request, TRAI also noted that it would be forced to dismiss over 75% of the 1.8 million responses posted on Facebook as they did not follow the stipulated format for submissions.

Facebook has also encouraged Indian users of Free Basics to offer advice and support for the service via social media, with founder Mark Zuckerberg saying “for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet. What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?”

The Indian government is set to decide on its policy towards the initiative next month.

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