Facebook refuses to give up on India and tries again with Express Wi-Fi

When there is a will there is a way…

Last year a disappointed Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, said after his much-anticipated and much endorsed “Free Basics” program, “While we’re disappointed with the decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world.” Facebook is now pushing forward a different path with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to commercially launch its Express Wi-Fi program and expand its reach.

With Express Wi-Fi, Facebook has been working with carriers, internet service providers, and local entrepreneurs to help expand connectivity to underserved locations around the world. This serves a two-fold purpose – first, rural areas get access to affordable internet; and second, local entrepreneurs help provide quality internet access to their neighbors and make a steady income.

“We are testing Express Wi-Fi program in India that allows customers to purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packages from their local ISP to access the Internet via local hotspots,” a Facebook India spokesperson said according to media reports.

What is the new Facebook Plan? Originally, Facebook’s “Free Basics” operated on the principal of zero-rating, a practice in which internet service providers do not charge the user on data for certain applications. This, however, violates the idea of net neutrality by incentivizing people to prefer certain services over the other.

The major difference with Express Wi-Fi is that this time Facebook is not offering free access to the internet, instead it is low-cost access. Users can buy data packs from their providers for as low as Rs 10. Facebook is providing software that helps local internet service providers and entrepreneurs sell and provide internet service in rural areas, which can be accessed via public Wi-Fi hotspots. Partnering with local service providers gives Facebook a chance to venture into remote areas of the country, which it otherwise could not have. Express Wi-Fi has already completed a trial period in the country with BSNL and about 125 rural Wi-Fi hotspots.  According to Facebook, about 148 million people access Facebook in India every month, and getting unconnected users online in the world’s second-most-populous country is key for its growth.

Facebook’s comeback with Express Wi-Fi won’t be free like they planned originally. Reports say that Bharat Sanchar Nigam may deploy the offer with the assistance of the technologies Facebook’s developed for its Telecom Infra Project.

Where is Google? 

It is unlikely that Google is not around…  Google already seems to have gotten a head start. In September 2015, Google announced plans to offer free high speed Wi-Fi in 400 railway stations across the country. The service is already active in 19 stations with 1.5 million people using the service. Google also plans to extend internet reach in India through its Project Loon which that aims to broadcast internet signals with a network of high-flying helium balloons… That is yet to be observed…

Why Wi-Fi? 

Digital lifestyle is emerging in India very quickly.  With increasing demand for data usage, Wi-Fi is the need of the hour. There are currently over 31,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots installed in India, according to industry estimates, and the number is expected to grow.

India is nowhere close to current global average of one public Wi-Fi hotspot per 150 people. The state of broadband report released by the UN Broadband Commission says that in 2015, India’s broadband penetration ranking fell from 113 to 155, behind Syria, Zimbabwe and Ghana. The higher speed, rapidly growing smartphone user base and the fact that a significant portion of the population does not have an Internet connection are key drivers for potential public Wi-Fi hotspots in India. Global internet companies are eying this untouched segment of the population and that makes India so important in Facebook’s scheme of things.

This article was written by Jonathan Gordon and  first published on PricingDataPlans.

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