Facebook to test wireless broadband services in India

Thomas K Thomas Menlo Park | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 25, 2015

Munish Seth is spearheading the Wi-Fi Express initiative in India

Facebook's WiFi Express

facebookS   -  BusinessLine

Partners with ISPs to set up wi-fi hotspots in rural areas

From being just a social media platform, Facebook is transforming itself as an enabler of Internet access through various initiatives aimed at reaching the next billion users.

On Thursday it announced partnerships with Internet Service Providers in India to launch wi-fi enabled broadband services in rural areas. Called Wi-Fi Express, the initiative is part of Facebook’s platform as it looks to expand its user base beyond the saturated markets in the US and Europe.

 The Wi-Fi Express has gone live first in India. The initial Wi-Fi zones have been launched across several locations in North India. The initiative is being led by Munish Seth, who was earlier the country head of Alcatel Lucent’s India operations. 

“Facebook is co-investing in the project to get the initiative off the ground. We are working on various business models to help the local entrepreneur get returns and turn investors in the project in the long term,” Seth told  BusinessLine.

Facebook has developed a low-cost software that will help hotspot operators at the village level do the billing and also alert consumers about data usage.

The wi-fi services run on unlicenced free-to-air spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band. Users can get speeds of up to 1.5-2 Mbps within the hotspot zone. To access the service, users have to buy packages, which start at ₹10. 

Facebook did not name the Internet Service Providers with which it has partnered to launch the service. “We have partnered with several ISPs. Our plan is to do several more such tie-ups to take this pan-India over the next few months,” said Seth.

Facebook also wants to roll out this project in other countries. In the past, many companies had tried similar projects in India using technologies like WiMax and Cordect. However, they had failed to take off for a number of reasons, including lack of a business prospects in rural areas.

Facebook, however, is confident that its initiative will become one of the key projects addressing connectivity issues not just in India but other emerging markets. “Initial data coming in from the hotspots installed in India suggests that this model will work. We will take this to other countries much faster than what we had initially thought,” said Chris Daniels, global leader of the initiative.

Facebook has been experimenting with various technologies to provide low-cost connectivity solutions. In its US labs, the company is working on using solar powered aircraft, codenamed Aquila, to provide network connectivity in remote locations. The aircraft has the wingspan of a Boeing 777 and is built to stay airborne at 60,000 feet for many months, connecting a large area over which it hovers.

The India angle

Explaining the rationale behind Wi-Fi Express, Yael Maguire, Head of Connectivity Labs, Facebook, said: “In countries such as India we have realised consumers in rural areas have about $25 a year to spend on communication needs. It is difficult to meet that cost level and that’s why we are researching technologies that will address this challenge.”  

Another project Facebook is experimenting on is using lasers to transmit data.  If such projects succeed, it plans to partner with existing telecom operators to offer low-cost Internet access.

(The writer is in Menlo Park at the invitation of Facebook)

Published on September 25, 2015
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