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Facebook starts testing Express Wifi for rural India

business Updated: Nov 29, 2016 17:17 IST
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Mark Zuckerberg-founded Facebook has started live testing its Express Wifi programme, which aims to connect the next billion users in India.(HT Archive)

Faceboook started a pilot two months ago to provide internet access by creating Wifi hotspots across the country, especially in small towns and villages. But, even before the pilot ends, the social networking giant has decided to take the program to other countries, which resemble India and have an untapped user base.

“We are 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,” the company said on its website.

Google and Facebook are after the next billion new internet users – a third of which will come from India. A large base of users allows both the companies to make more advertising revenue. That’s the battle between both of them – who has the larger clout . (Nearly 65% of India is yet to use the internet).

Many of the countries where Facebook hopes to add new users such as Africa, resembles India in terms of user behaviour and topography.

Facebook’s entry into creating Wfif hotspots intensifies its competition with Google, which started what it calls “Free Wifi” in partnership with an Indian Railways subsidiary, RailTel, to offer internet connectivity in 400 railway stations by 2018. It already offers it at 53 stations. Facebook, too, has partnered with the RailTel for the Express Wifi programme.

Facebook, on the other hand, will not offer it for free – it will charge a small amount for the access. But, most of these hotspots will be in small towns and eventually expand in villages, from where most of the new users will come.

The company did not share any details on the number of hotspots that they plan to open, however, the source said that Facebook will share the cost of the setup, provide technology for reliable high-speed internet access, and perhaps also share cost of operations.

“Currently we are working with ISP and operator partners to test Express Wi-Fi with public Wi-Fi deployments in multiple pilot sites. This solution empowers ISPs, operators, and local entrepreneur retailers to offer quality internet access to their village, town or region,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Express Wi-Fi customers can purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packs via digital vouchers to access the Internet on the Express Wi-Fi network, he explained without giving out more details of the plan that the public will soon be able to avail. However, he clarified that Facebook wouldn’t take any payments directly.

Facebook, which already has 160 million users in India (its second largest market), will make pre-paid vouchers available at the neighbourhood stores, which can be bought and used to access the wifi, the source confirmed.

Google, too, has plans to roll out a Wifi program called Google Station, where it wants to provide the service as long as a place – cafes, malls, universities, and bus stations – has a wired internet connection. However, it is unclear when the internet access will be charged, a small fee though, and the revenue will be split between Google and its space owner.

The company is also testing its Project Loon to provide connectivity where internet presence is abysmal. While no details about the project has come to the fore, the company is also looking at placing Google Accelerator boxes in cafes and restaurants to help consumers with entertainment.

The Mountain View internet giant also has a Wifi plan called Google Fi. Under the programme, a consumer pays to Google directly to access internet. Google in the back end has partnerships with ISPs, public Wifi and network operators which lets the user board onto their network depending on the region. However, Facebook claims that Express Wifi is not like Google’s Fi.

Redmond-based Microsoft is also not far behind in the bandwagon. The company is also working on TV White Spaces technology which lets the company broadcast internet signals at unused low-frequency spectrum bands. The company claims that since the frequency is low, the signals can be transmitted over larger areas bringing down the cost of laying optical fibre.

The moves comes a year after Facebook’s attempt to get more users on to the internet through its Free Basics program was shut down by the government as it opposed the concepts of “net-neutrality” by offering access to different websites at different prices.

Indian non-profit organisation Broadband Forum is also working on a new technology to increase range of Wifi networks. The technology, called E&V bands, which runs on the 60 GHz frequency band increases the range of Wifi that is already installed.

“The V band (60 GHz) can not only be utilized for mobile backhaul but also act as a “fiber extension” to extend broadband connectivity from existing points of presence (“POPs”) to nearby locations for a number of applications in urban, semi-urban, and rural areas,” an industry spokesperson said adding that Indian telecom regulator TRAI has proposed this as one of the potential bands for use for Wifi purposes.

Bharat Net, a government of India initiative, also aims to connect all gram panchayts in India by laying down optical fibre network.

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