Zero-rated services provide an on-ramp to networked resources that are otherwise beyond many users’ reach. Through such services, wireless service providers offer free access to a curated set of popular applications on the public Internet. Its proponents assert that zero-rated services provide an invaluable introduction to online applications and content, which, in turn, will increase adoption rates in the most neglected markets.
But zero-rating has split communications policymakers around the world. Proponents argue that it grows adoption rates. Opponents argue that it violates the network neutrality norms of nondiscrimination and “innovation without permission.” Other opponents assert that zero-rating dissuades governments from committing resources to alternative ways of deploying affordable service universally. The issue has been challenging for communications scholars to sort through, as it joins a variety of arguably incompatible regulatory norms. I argue here, instead, that zero-rating should only be evaluated in the way all communications technologies are: how does it enable all members of the community to contribute to and engage in public life on equal terms?