Facebook returns to India WiFi provision after Free Basics ban
Mon 8 Aug 2016
After completing a pilot program, Facebook is now in talks with Indian ISPs to roll out a commercial launch of Express WiFi. Facebook’s Express WiFi uses public hotspots to provide reliable internet in rural areas where infrastructure is lacking.
The initial testing of 125 Express WiFi hotspots was completed with the assistance of the state-run telecommunications company Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. This participation by an Indian government entity may help Facebook to avoid the problems associated with Free Basics, the company’s previous attempt to provide WiFi in rural India. In February of this year, India banned Free Basics along with other zero-rated services due to concerns over net neutrality.
The company’s plan for Express WiFi, however, appears to be on track. A spokesperson for Facebook said, “We are currently in the early stages of testing Express Wi-Fi with multiple local ISP partners. As our partners prove the economic model is sustainable, we will work with them to scale the project.” Scalability is important for this large a project, as one regulator pointed out that it would take 800,000 hotspots to reach the long-term goal of one per 150 citizens.
While Facebook has left it to their partners to present options for scalability of this enormous undertaking, they have created customized software for local ISPs to use, to help bridge connectivity gaps in rural areas.
India represents a huge potential market for Facebook, with an estimated 9% of Indian citizens active on social media – the lowest in the Asia Pacific region. A major roadblock to India’s participation in social media has always been the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, which means internet access is unreliable or nonexistent.
India has a very low internet penetration rate, with less than a third of its people on the internet compared to more than 80% in Europe and the Americas. Providing reliable internet access to areas where it is currently lacking is part of Facebook’s overall plan to increase their presence in India, one of the largest markets remaining for the social media giant.
In February of 2015 Mark Zuckerberg said, “To continue connecting the world, we have to connect India,” adding, “One day, we will connect everyone, and the power of the internet will serve every community across India and the world. That day is coming.”