A year after social networking major Facebook pulled the plug on Free Basics, the company on Thursday launched another product under its Internet.org programme, ‘Express Wi-Fi’.
It has got into a tie-up with Bharti Airtel to launch as many as 20,000 hotspots, the term for a physical location where people may get internet access, typically using Wi-Fi, via a wireless local area network, using a router connected to an internet service provider (ISP).
While Facebook did not elaborate, the company plans to get into similar tie-ups with other telcos, including Reliance Jio and Vodafone. They are in preliminary talks with state governments and government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam, to set up public Wi-Fi hotspots for them.
The idea is to offer internet services through public hotspots in rural parts in partnership with telcos. Where Facebook handles the back-end technology and telcos the on-ground work.
Unlike Free Basics that provided access to selected websites for free, Express Wi-Fi works on a ‘paid’ model. The access will not be restricted to any particular website. Users can log on to Wi-Fi hotspots and buy daily, weekly or monthly data packs.
Free Basics was launched in 2015 in partnership with Reliance Communications. It allowed access to selected websites.
Critics saw this as violation of the principle of Net Neutrality, which advocates equal treatment of all internet traffic.
It finally pulled the plug on the programme in February last year in this country, after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) barred operators from charging discriminatory rates for net access based on content. The company continues to run the Free Basics programme in many countries.
Airtel will roll out the hotspots in a phased manner through 2017. Facebook says it is looking for ‘maximum expansion’. “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 Trai’s Performance Indicator Report, only 390 million are connected to the internet,” said Munish Seth, head of connectivity solutions at Facebook Asia Pacific.
He added that Facebook was working with ISPs. The company has been testing the product in India and has been operating a little over 700 Wi-Fi hotspots, working with around 500 village-level entrepreneurs.
The internet user base has seen a significant jump in recent years, with smartphones becoming more affordable and data prices falling, especially after Reliance Jio began its offers.
Global tech giant Google has rolled out free internet access through public Wi-Fi hotspots at 100 railway stations, in partnership with government-owned RailTel. Seth says he believes the Indian market is big enough for all companies to cater for consumers. “The market remains under-penetrated and all these efforts (by others) will help expand it further,” he said.
Asked about Facebook’s role in the programme, he said the company would only provide the platform and solutions. “We will not charge the ISP/telecom operator or the entrepreneur. The operator decides on the pricing and will handle the data as the internet traffic flows through their system. We are just providing the solutions.”
Facebook might also bundle its other products into Express Wi-Fi in the near future and provide it to the rural market. The service is available at present in Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. Facebook had started testing Express Wi-Fi in India in 2015.