Dubbed “Express Wifi,” Facebook’s new Wi-Fi service will allow users to surf the web on local providers’ data. Facebook has launched a test version with state-run carrier BSNL, to offer 125 Wi-Fi hotspots in rural areas in India.
This isn’t the first time that Facebook has tried to bring readily accessible internet to India, but that attempt didn’t go so well. While the goal of bringing affordable internet hasn’t changed, the key difference is that this time around, it won’t be free. Facebook is working with local carriers and internet service providers to give users in India access to Wi-Fi hotspots, and according to Facebook, it will work with local entrepreneurs so that they can use Facebook’s software to connect their communities.
With Express Wifi, we’re working with carriers, internet service providers, and local entrepreneurs to help expand connectivity to underserved locations around the world. We’re currently live in India, and are expanding to other regions soon.
Facebook’s efforts to bring affordable internet access to India has a complex history. It all started with Internet.org: way back in 2013, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his vision to bring internet access for people around the world. Often compared to Google’s Project Loon, Internet.org is a partnership between a handful of companies – including Samsung and Qualcomm – that seeks to provide affordable web access in developing countries.
In September 2015, Facebook launched an app called Free Basics in India, which let users access certain websites for free, including Facebook of course. However, things went sour pretty fast, and after just five months since its launch, regulators in India banned Free Basics.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled that Free Basics violated the tenets of net neutrality, a practice known as “zero rating.” Essentially, TRAI thought Facebook’s service had an unfair advantage, and rightfully so: other social media websites in India that use data wouldn’t have a fair chance to compete with Facebook.
With Express Wifi, Facebook is giving it a second try. Although it won’t be free this time around, it will undoubtedly give Facebook an edge over its competitors without violating net neutrality. The logic is that when a user accesses the web via a Facebook initiative, he or she will be more likely to join Facebook.
Free Basics wasn’t much of a success in India not only because it violated net neutrality, but also, as some pointed out, it didn’t solve the fundamental problem of connectivity. According to TRAI, India only had 131 million broadband connections at the end of 2015. That is, 131 million in a nation of 1.25 billion people. Therefore, Free Basics’ free but limited internet access didn’t really mean much for most Indian users. Only time will tell if Facebook’s second attempt, this time with a larger focus on building the infrastructure, will prove itself to be more contextually appropriate and effective.
Do you think Express Wifi will be more effective in connecting people in India? Let us know in the comments below!