Author(s): Raghu Gopal
After running into issues with India's Net neutrality rules when giving away access, is this second attempt neutral enough?
Facebook is launching a new low-cost Wi-Fi service in India called Express Wi-Fi. Through the service, consumers can purchase low-cost data packages from local Internet service providers for connectivity at local hot spots. The company has already tested a pilot version of the programme with 125 rural Wi-Fi access points. Facebook won't own the infrastructure, but is partnering with local wireless operators and Internet service providers.
Facebook's new initiative in India is a rebound move after its sponsored-data programme called Free Basics was shut down. Launched in February 2015, Free Basics ran into conflicts with India's Net neutrality laws. Facebook couldn't give it away.
There's no doubt that the Indian market is vitally important to Facebook. With a population of 1.25 billion, India provides Facebook with a growth opportunity as developed markets become saturated. But India is full of challenges such as low Internet speeds, a relatively outdated infrastructure and a lack of consumer trust. Facebook also faces competition from Google, which has announced plans to offer free high-speed Wi-Fi at 400 railway stations in the country. As of last month the service was already active in several stations with close to 2 million users.
If Facebook can establish Wi-Fi Express as a well-known connectivity brand, it's certain to drive up its user numbers. Facebook's Messenger app is already considered a full-fledged portal and platform among many users in India, providing a forum for daily online activities. Earlier in 2016, Facebook executives said that the service had 142 million users in India, with 133 million of those accessing it via phone. This is a mobile-first country. Facebook is also keen to maintain the lead its services have established in India so that others, such as Tencent's WeChat, continue to find it hard to take hold.
Both Facebook and Google are looking for their next billion users, and it will take innovative approaches to get there. If free is a no-go, then Express can be the next best thing.