New Delhi, November 30: Facebook is testing WiFi hotspots across villages and small towns in India to provide free internet access, under their project “Wi-Fi Express” which is implemented in over a 100 villages across India, and users have to come to a community area to access the Internet. Facebook has created the commercially available Wi-Fi access point technology with their software. A local entrepreneur can help users electronically buy Internet usage for as low as Rs 10.
The new experiment comes months after India’s telecom regulator blocked Free Basics, a controversial Facebook service that it said would bring free access to a limited version of the social network and other sites to the poor.
The ruling was seen as a setback for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who is keen to expand on the network’s 160 million users, the second largest in the world.
“We are working with carriers, internet service providers and local entrepreneurs to help expand connectivity to ‘underserved’ locations around the world. We’re live in India, and are expanding to other regions soon,” the company said on its website.
Google and Facebook are chasing the next billion internet users — a third of which are expected to come from India — to generate more advertising revenue. Nearly 65% of India is yet to use the internet.
Google has been providing free Wi-Fi in partnership with an Indian Railways subsidiary, RailTel, and plans to offer internet connectivity in 400 railway stations by 2018. The Google programme is already active at 53 stations. Facebook, too, is talking to RailTel for similar services in coming days.
However, the new project, Express Wifi, may not be free. The company 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 are expected to come. The company did not share any details on the number of hotspots that it plans to open.
Sources said Facebook will share setup costs, provide technology and perhaps also share operation costs.
“Currently, we are working with ISP and operator partners to test Express Wi-Fi with public Wi-Fi deployments in multiple pilot sites,” a Facebook spokesperson said. Express Wi-Fi customers can purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packs, he said. The plan is expected to be available for public soon, he said, adding Facebook would not take payments directly.