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Facebook brings Express WiFi to India, partners with Airtel for 700 hotspots

Called Express WiFi, the new programme, which is a follow up of the banned Free Basics platform, ties up with entrepreneurs to help them set up public WiFi hotspots and helping them provide internet to a lot of citizens in poor or no connectivity areas -- the “intent” behind Free Basics platform.

tech Updated: May 05, 2017 13:31 IST
Anirban Ghoshal
Facebook Express WiFi

(Reuters)

Remember the cable guy? Carrying a roll of optical fibre cables on his shoulder that brought satellite TV to your homes before set top box relegated him to history.

He is coming back but only in the form of entrepreneurs who will set up WiFi hotspots courtesy Facebook to provide internet in public places ending India’s poor connectivity problem.

Called Express WiFi, the new programme, which is a follow up of the banned Free Basics platform, ties up with entrepreneurs to help them set up public WiFi hotspots and helping them provide internet to a lot of citizens in poor or no connectivity areas – the “intent” behind Free Basics platform.

“We were working with ISP and operator partners to test Express WiFi with public WiFi deployments in multiple pilot sites,” Munish Seth, head of connectivity solutions at Facebook’s Asia Pacific region, told HT, adding that now customers will be able to purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packs in four states (Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya) across 700 hotspots and 500 retailers. Express WiFi has been deployed in partnership with ISPs AirJaldi in Uttarakhand, LMES in Rajasthan, Tikona in Gujarat, and soon with Shaildhar in Meghalaya.

He also said that Facebook was working with Airtel to bring 20,000 more hotspots throughout the country. Express WiFi is currently live in Indonesia, Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria.

Explaining how Express WiFi works, Seth said that Facebook is providing the software stack for the entrepreneurs, data analytics and in some cases some funds to help start operations. However, he said that the entrepreneur can choose any internet service provider (ISP) for bringing the WiFi to the hotspot.

“We will recommend ISPs based on our tests and usually the speed of the Wi-Fi has to be somewhat around 10mbps,” Seth said, adding, that if someone wants to use the WiFi, the person will buy a data card just like prepaid vouchers and use it on their devices.

“Anyone can access the Express WiFi network by signing up with an Express WiFi retailer and purchasing a daily, weekly or monthly data pack at a rate set by our partners. They will then be able to connect to the Express WiFi hotspot, register/create an account, login and start browsing or use any app on the entire internet,” Seth explained.

He also said that “this will kill the need of owning 4G devices and that will be immensely helpful for India where 4G is catching up fast but has a long way to go before it becomes mainstream.”

However, Seth didn’t clarify how Facebook would generate revenue streams but said that the company was providing the software stack and analytics free of cost to entrepreneurs.

Seth also said Facebook will have no control over data costs and individual suppliers will decide that. Now this means that you might be charged differently for the same amount of data in different public WiFi hotspots. However, Facebook said that the cost of data will be affordable.

“It is similar to the cybercafe model that thrived around a decade back,” Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst at Greyhound Research said. He added that if the programme is successful then it will contribute to PM Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative.

Currently, as per TRAI data only 390 million people are connected to the internet. However, Express WiFi launch comes a day after TRAI chairman RS Sharma said that the regulator will come out with its recommendations on net neutrality by the first half of July.

TRAI had struck down Facebook’s previous programme – Free Basics in India – that aimed to connect the “unconnected Indians” on the grounds of net neutrality. Net neutrality regulation ensures that all ISPs charge customers the same price for accessing all websites and services.

This also doesn’t mean Facebook is flouting net neutrality norms as Jio also offers data at lower prices than rivals.

Google and Microsoft also have been working on similar connectivity project. Google is already providing a free WiFi service in several railway stations in India in partnership with RailTel and the programme is expected to be scaled to 400 stations in the country.

Google also plans to extend Google Station to cafes, malls, universities and bus stations – a programme to offer high-speed browsing at any place that has a wired internet connection. However, it may not be a free service, with revenue being split between Google and the space owner.

The company is testing its Project Loon that will use balloons to take internet access to remote locations. It is also learnt to be looking at putting Google Accelerator boxes in cafes and restaurants.

The Mountain View internet giant also has a WiFi plan called Google Fi, which Facebook claims is different from its Express WiFi. A Fi user pays Google directly and accesses the internet riding Google’s partnerships with ISPs, public WiFi and network operators.

Redmond-based Microsoft is trailing along as well. The company is 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.