Update: A spokesperson from Facebook has issued a statement stating that the company is working with ISP and Operator partners to test Express Wi-Fi at multiple locations. This empowers the operators, ISPs and local entrepreneur-retailers to offer quality internet to their town, village or region. Facebook further adds that Express Wi-Fi customers can purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packs via digital vouchers to access the internet on Express Wi-Fi network to make a sustainable economic model for everyone involved.
Facebook is currently testing a new internet infrastructure “Express Wi-Fi” in partnership with BSNL in rural areas to provide ‘affordable’ internet to people who don’t have access to the cheap internet or in some cases, no internet at all. According to the vague details published on the “Express Wifi” page by Facebook, the company is working with carriers or mobile operators, internet service providers and local entrepreneurs to help increase the connectivity of internet in these remote locations. Facebook has been testing this service since an unspecified amount of time, but the company plans to expand this service in other regions.
The decision to involve local entrepreneurs where they may or may not invest to help set up the infrastructure in their area is quite brilliant actually. This will give local business owners good incentive to invest so they can tap the untapped potential of the community by bringing them online.
This works perfectly in line for Facebook as the company is trying to connect the next one billion people to the internet where almost 30 percent of that number will come from India. The organic growth can’t be driven by a company or ISPs or government that effectively. Instead local businesses and entrepreneurs can give the boost needed to the adoption of latest technologies. Facebook focused on the local adoption push recently where the company pointed out that it will concentrate on helping businesses connect with new potential customers.
Problems, Deja Vu?
This will obviously benefit both the businessmen in remote areas as well as Facebook with new customers on the platform with all the user data that they can gather for advertising and revenue. But the main issue is that there is no clarity on anything, right from the implementation, test locations, tariff details or the openness of the platform. In fact, while digging for the details of the program, we are directed to Internet.org, which was immensely criticised for its disregard to the openness of the internet.
One interesting thing that we found was the that it was possible that company was working on Express Wifi as an alternative to the Internet.org or Free Basics if the plan did not work out. This is reaffirmed by the initial reports of the company working with BSNL in partnership from January 2016 as reported by Business Standard. According to the report, Facebook was looking in investing in Wi-Fi hotspots to provide the internet to the masses. The company was working in partnership with BSNL and has bought bandwidth from BSNL in in 125 rural areas for three years. This means that the company is going to test a lot of plans for future Internet services if the plan does not work out.
I visited other existing implementations of Express Wifi online and found that the company has already implemented in Nigeria. The website, by appearance, gives the same ominous deja vu; the language used is “Add your website to Free Basics” under the “Get Involved” heading at the bottom of “Express Wifi by Facebook” page. The absurdity is that while looking at existing Express Wifi details, the company plans “Fast, Affordable, and Reliable Wi-Fi” along with a 14-day free trial with a daily limit of 100MB per day.
The confusing thing is that the company points out that “you can access the entire Internet” while immediately below the title, Facebook mentions “Free Basics.” I tried signing up, and the signup page relies on your full name and mobile number.
From Internet.org to Drones to Express Wifi
Facebook has long been working on newer ideas to connect people together by providing them access to the internet. The initial layout of the plan started with Internet.org which was built to function like the ‘0’ platform launched way back in 2013 by Wikipedia in partnership with Aircel. The company tied up with Wikipedia to launch ‘Wikipedia Zero‘ to provide people free access to information online. This later expanded to Facebook and other websites on Aircel India network.
Internet.org was rolled out later after the popularity of the concept where Facebook tied up with Reliance to provide free access to certain sites while the users had to pay to access the entire internet. Airtel launched its Airtel Zero platform after the introduction of Internet.org. Facebook rebranded the effort to ‘Free Basics’ which received a massive outlast as it was a huge blow to net neutrality. TRAI banned zero rated plans entirely, stopping any mobile operator from putting discriminatory pricing to access different websites on the internet.
The latest effort by Facebook is Project Aquila, where the company is using solar-powered drones which use laser technology to beam the internet to remote places while staying airborne. The Aquila drone took flight in late July this year and crashed a few days back after structural failure. The company has ordered an investigation to check the design flaw and improve the design for the next drone. Express Wifi is the latest attempt by the company in India to connect people with ‘free’ or ‘affordable’ internet.
Google is not slacking
Google, the rival internet giant to Facebook, is not sitting idle when it comes to attempts at tapping the largest potential market of new users for its services. The company started test runs of Project Loon, a project to provide connectivity to remote and rural areas using balloons. It quickly scaled up to launching 20 balloons every day in 2014 testing the system. The project has continued to evolve to this date with regular upgrades to LTE, testing in newer locations with tests in India earlier this year.
The company took the same path as Facebook with tests done using drones as part of Project SkyBender earlier this year. Google also revealed that it is testing technologies that can easily beam the internet directly to your homes which involve a fixed Fibre beaming station in the areas where fibre connections are expensive. The company confirmed that it is testing multiple technologies and not limiting to one technology.
More recently, the company launched Google Stations, which in principle is almost like what Facebook is trying to do with bringing local entrepreneurs and ISPs to provide Internet infrastructure and connectivity. But one important factor is that the company does not restrict the internet to a particular set of websites that you can access. Instead, Google limits the time of free usage, allowing the user to buy more time to use the entire internet without any limitations. Google Station is perfect for towns or villages set near railway stations. This project was the evolution of Google’s plan to provide high-speed internet to major stations across India using RailTel.
Both Facebook and Google are experimenting with various technologies to be the first on to crack the vast Indian market. The Indian market is essential because that would directly impact the long-term growth for both the companies. One thing to note is that both companies are working on similar lines, experimenting with Drones or tieing up with local entrepreneurs, ISPs and carriers.
However, the most important factor that both the companies, especially Facebook, has to take care is to maintain and nurture the core principals of internet, particularly Net neutrality. Instead of repacking same old wine in a new bottle, they should focus on ideas like Open Cellular which can truly be disruptive. Repackaging the same old idea will not work because if they do so, the resulting backlash can have lasting impact regarding its ambitions to establish its foothold in untapped portions of Indian market.