2 minutes read
One year after Facebook had to pull out the infamous Free Basics programme, it is ready to roll out its ‘Express Wi-Fi’ service in the country. Targeted at regions with low internet penetration or poor connectivity, the service will now be available through 700 hotspots across four Indian states including Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. As part of the commercial launch, Facebook has partnered with Bharti Airtel to launch an additional 20,000 public hotspots over the course of next few months. Today’s launch in India takes the total number of Express Wi-Fi enabled countries to five. Other countries are Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Indonesia. Munish Seth, Head of Connectivity Solutions, Facebook Asia Pacific, said, “Our goal is to grow the number of Express Wi-Fi hotspots in India rapidly. India has a population of about 1.3 billion people, but according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI’s) Performance Indicator Report, only 390 million people are connected to the Internet.”
The service essentially works in partnership with internet service providers (ISPs), network operators, businesses, etc. to help expand connectivity in regions with higher demand but lower access to internet. These third-party agents use software provided by Facebook to enhance connectivity. It is to be noted that Express Wi-Fi does not mean Facebook’s own internet connection but rather as a platform for entrepreneurs, operators, etc. to leverage existing mobile data plans and connectivity. Facebook has said that the services are priced by the Internet service providers, who will also recruit the entrepreneurs while the company will provide the software and network architecture along with analytics. The ISPs for Wi-fi hotspots are AirJaldi in Uttarakhand, LMES in Rajasthan, Tikona in Gujarat, and roll out in Meghalaya is being carried out by a company called Shaildhar.
Express Wi-fi service is different from Facebook’s Free Basics. Free Basics was providing its services for free, Express Wi-Fi works on a paid model and the access will not be restricted to any specific websites. The controversial program, earlier called Internet.org, was in partnership with RCom and attempted to give users access to only certain websites for free, thereby curbing the very notion of a free internet. Owing to the intricacies involved in resolving the issue of net neutrality, TRAI shelved Free Basics program until further approval. However, unlike Free Basics, Express Wi-Fi does not put a cap on what a user consumes on the internet. Anyone can access the Express Wi-Fi network by signing up with an Express Wi-Fi retailer. There are daily, weekly or monthly data packs available at a rate set by Facebook’s partners. These physical and online vouchers are priced at Rs 10-20 for a day and go up to Rs 200-300 for a month. After signing up, one will be able to then connect to the Express Wi-Fi hotspot, register/create an account, login and start browsing or use any app.
Interestingly, Facebook’s partnership with Airtel is likely to be seen as a threat to the current market position Reliance Jio enjoys. It will be an interesting market study to see how Airtel – once a market leader and Facebook – leader in social networking platform, together leverage the potential data hungry India has.