Zero Rating Policies From Internet Users in Three Peruvian Regions

This post was written by Roxana Barrantes and Daniela Ugarte, Principal Investigator and Research Assistant, respectively, Peruvian Studies Institute (IEP).

Overview of Research

As access to the internet, mobile phones, and computers has increased in Peru, so too has the diversity of offerings provided by Peru’s telecom operators. Most telecom operators in Peru offer zero rated services, with offerings subsidizing Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp being particularly popular. With support from Mozilla, researchers at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) sought to explore Peruvians’ understanding and use of zero rated services, how these subsidies affect their internet usage, and whether zero rated services are serving as an on-ramp to the internet. To explore these questions, 14 focus groups (FGs) were conducted in three Peruvian regions: Ayacucho, Lima and San Martin.

Key Findings

1. Zero rating plans are only used by smartphone users, mostly by young adults.

Among the FG respondents, zero rating plans are only used by those who already have access to smartphones, and are especially popular with young adults (18-29 years of age). Use is mediated by access and awareness. Young adults and those around age 30 are the most intensive mobile phone users, and thus are the demographic with the greatest access to zero rated plans (which are only available on mobile phones). This age group is also more likely to be aware of subsidized plans.

“Regarding the use of internet, let’s say, I changed operators because of the publicity and promotions that other mobile phone companies offered about services, let’s say, social networks, basically. Because, one way or another it avoids excessive expenses and continuous charges, you can just communicate through WhatsApp or Facebook. Personally, in my university it spread really quickly, let’s say, changing operators to get everything unlimited. And most of the classmates would find each other only through those networks and it was no longer necessary to call.” (Young woman, urban, Ayacucho)

2. Socioeconomic status greatly influences means of access to the internet.

Knowledge and use of subsidized data varies markedly based on participants’ socioeconomic status. The most cost-conscious users worry more about spending the least amount of data possible, while users from higher socioeconomic groups do not worry about limiting data use.

Respondents use different sites and services depending on the nature of their connection. They are more hesitant to access data-intensive services over a full-cost connection, preferring to do so over Wi-Fi. One young urban female respondent described the difference between data and Wi-Fi as such:

“It’s like, with my data is different for me to be online. I’m there and it’s all cool, but when I have WiFi, I can enter to download apps, or download music or search for some information. With data, I can’t do that…” (Young woman, urban, Ayacucho)

3. Respondents’ understanding of the internet is not conditioned by zero rating policies.

Research findings show that respondents’ understanding of the internet is not conditioned by zero rating promotions. Indeed, most respondents are unaware whether they have or use plans with subsidized data. Most respondents have already learned about the internet before using mobile data, as their first contact with the internet was primarily through computers. In other words, zero rated services did not serve to bring non-users online for the first time. However, users’ understanding of the internet is not only affected by their means of access and first exposure, but also their education level, and age. Respondents who have recently begun using the internet place greater emphasis on the negative aspects and hazards that come with use.

4. Zero rating policies do not significantly limit internet use or sites that users visit.

In general, the use of subsidized platforms represents only a part of mobile data consumption. Thus, nearly all participants who use zero rated plans also have access to the full, open internet, especially among higher-socioeconomic-status respondents.

Although users, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, visit subsidized services more, subsidized promotions do not limit the breadth of their internet use. That is because subsidized data does not address the three primary reasons that people use the internet: information search, entertainment, and communication–zero rating promotions focus mainly on communication. Likewise, it is important to note that patterns of internet use are also influenced by internet experience and personal life needs.

5. Access conditions (urban vs. rural, age, context of initial internet exposure, device(s) used) influence internet perception and use.

Access conditions influence the processes of internet understanding and adoption. The FGs demonstrate a gap in access conditions among urban and rural respondents. While in urban areas most of the participants have access to smartphones and computers, in rural areas there is scarce access to mobile devices or good connectivity infrastructure. This feature is accentuated in Ayacucho and San Martin, where computers, mostly from public access locations, represent the main points of access. These gaps dissipate for younger users (18-29 years of age) since they tend to use more devices.

6. Non-users face a series of barriers to internet access.

Most respondents who have not used the internet would like to, because they understand that it can help them find all kinds of information. Yet, they face many barriers to use. Rural respondents face expensive, poor quality connections or a lack of connectivity altogether. Many rural communities that do not have internet access also lack basic services such as electricity. Language and literacy too present a barrier; rural areas of Ayacucho are primarily Quechua-speaking with little literacy of internet-dominant languages.

Learning to use the internet demands time that respondents do not have; women indicate that their household work and childcare, in addition to work outside the home, leaves them little time to spend on such tasks. Even if respondents have time, there are not places or instructors to teach them, and even when there is sufficient equipment, many female respondents fear that they may “damage the machines” while learning. Reducing their perceived pressure to learn, non-users often rely on “hinge people,” family members who use the internet on behalf of non-users.