Info-tech

Facebook starts Express Wi-Fi services in India

Varun Aggarwal Mumbai | Updated on January 11, 2018

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Partners Airtel to connect 20,000 more hotspots

After remaining in beta testing phase for nearly 18 months, Facebook on Thursday officially announced its Express Wi-Fi internet services in India, which are already available at 700 hotspots across Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya.

Facebook has partnered with 500 local entrepreneurs who will sell these services through vouchers that are priced ranging ₹10-20 for a day or ₹200-300 for a month.

Unlike Facebook’s previous attempt at connecting people to the internet through the Free Basics initiative that gave consumers access to select apps and portals, the Express Wi-Fi offers internet at upwards of 10Mbps speeds without any per day limit or restrictions on accessing any part of the internet. Express Wi-Fi will not even require a user to have or set up a Facebook account, the company said.

“We are not looking at making any revenue from this initiative. Our mission is to serve the underserved and underconnected and by charging users for the service, we are ensuring that it is a sustainable effort at an extremely affordable cost for the consumers,” Munish Seth, Head of Connectivity Solutions, Facebook Asia Pacific, told BusinessLine.

The Express Wi-Fi initiative is also live in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia and is being handled by Seth from Facebook’s Gurugram office.

Facebook also announced its partnership with Bharti Airtel to launch an additional 20,000 hotspots, which will be deployed over the next few months.

Ajai Puri, Chief Operating Officer (India & South Asia), Bharti Airtel, said, “We are delighted to be a part of this initiative to provide affordable access to high speed data to users across India, particularly in the underserved segment. We believe this will help in empowering millions of Indians by bringing them online and contribute to the Government’s Digital India vision.”

While Airtel has its own network offering 3G and 4G services, Express Wi-Fi enables Airtel to offer internet connectivity to consumers who cannot afford 3G or 4G handsets and are looking for more affordable data plans than currently offered by various telcos.

How to access

Anyone can access the Express Wi-Fi network by signing up with an Express Wi-Fi retailer and purchasing a daily, weekly or monthly data pack at a rate set by Facebook partners.

They will then be able to connect to the Express Wi-Fi hotspot, register/create an account, login and start browsing or use any app on the entire internet.

Express Wi-Fi has been deployed in partnership with ISPs AirJaldi in Uttarakhand, LMES in Rajasthan, Tikona in Gujarat, and soon with Shaildhar in Meghalaya.

Seth said just providing the internet is not enough for people in the village and, therefore, Facebook ran an extensive awareness programme along with its partners in the four States to create awareness around the value provided by internet and how local communities can go online and increase their earning potential.

The key challenge

The biggest challenge in connecting villages to the internet is the lack of infrastructure. While the national optical fibre network reaches most parts of the country, to connect the villages few hundred kilometres to the edge of the fibre network often requires the use unlicensed spectrum such as that used by Wi-Fi technology. However, Wi-Fi has limited range and it is difficult to connect a wide area using the technology.

Other players such as Microsoft and Google are also trying to connect the underserved markets using different technologies. While Google is relying on Railways’ Railtel network, enabling internet connectivity at hundreds of railway stations, Microsoft has been trying to use White-Fi technology, which uses the unlicensed television broadcast spectrum to reach areas that are hundreds of kilometres away from the optical fibre cables. However, with government announcing that it intends to auction the spectrum used by White-fi, Microsoft’s White-fi plans have been restricted to a couple of villages it connected on an experimentation purposes.

“So far Wi-Fi was seen as cumbersome and difficult to manage and operate. To make sure it is scalable, we worked on the cost aspect of the network by working with OEMs,” Seth said highlighting the use of special equipment and software used and developed by Facebook to specifically address this issue.

Published on May 04, 2017

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