Recently, a federal appeals court upheld a series of unprecedented new rules that govern almost all aspects of the internet as we know it. In doing so, the court granted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sweeping authority over internet providers, high-speed networks, and the technology we depend on daily. The decision will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on our internet economy—especially Silicon Valley tech companies who are sure to face a slew of new regulations in the future given the agency’s expanded role.
But at a time when the internet continues to usher in life-changing benefits extending into all facets of our daily lives, it’s more important than ever to ensure that everyone—at all income levels—can access all that the internet has to offer.
Fortunately, mobile devices and the advent of new offerings like free data programs are helping make meaningful progress toward that goal.
Free data programs allow consumers to visit websites, access particular content, and use certain services without it counting against their mobile data plans. Instead of consumers, the companies behind those particular websites or services foot the bill for the data used. Better still, free data allows consumers to have more of their data leftover to do whatever they want with it.
Free data aligns perfectly with the dramatic societal shift we’ve experienced in recent years toward mobile devices. When you think about it, using your smartphone to make a phone call is now an afterthought as mobile devices have become the preferred mode of accessing the internet.
Our smartphones provide an instant connection to our personal lives, healthcare resources, professional networks, the news, our finances and so much more. We use them to navigate everyday life, and that’s especially true for communities of color.
Black and Hispanic communities are more likely to access the internet through their mobile devices than other demographic groups. This is equally true among Americans with more modest means. Lower-income households and individuals are less likely to have access to a broadband connection at home and more likely to rely on other sources for internet. In fact, for those that make $10,000 or less per year, only 42% have broadband access at home and 28% rely on other resources for their internet.
Increasingly affordable mobile devices and services provide a crucial onramp to the internet that’s needed for those who lack personal computers and high-speed internet connections at home. Simply put, mobile tech is closing the digital divide.
But the reality is we cannot use our mobile devices wherever, whenever, and however we want without also having to churn through our mobile data. That’s why free data programs are so helpful: They defray some of the costs of insatiable mobile data use and make it easier for consumers to do more online, longer.
The free data concept also has tremendous social applications. As a society, we stress the importance of continuing education, personal development, and economic mobility. Well, what if we could use free data programs to make online classrooms for new skills or job search resources free to access without any thought given to the data consumed?
Despite these worthwhile benefits, free data programs have drawn the ire of some so-called consumer groups who are demanding the FCC prohibit them altogether. Their reasons are grounded more in conjecture than evidence of consumer harm. But sometimes in our nation’s capital that’s enough. For the sake of all consumers—especially those from communities of color and lower-income households—let’s hope that is not the case this time.