Facebook is launching a new scheme to bring cheap internet access to rural India, just months after net neutrality protestors blocked the companys plan to provide free internet to millions in the country.
The company is currently testing Express Wi-Fi in India. The service, according to Facebook, will allow people to buy fast, reliable and affordable data packages without shelling out hundreds of rupees each month.
In January, Indias telecoms regulator rejected Facebooks Free Basics program after more than a million people registered complaints abut the plan, which would have given free access to specific websites chosen by Facebook.
Hundreds of protestors took to the streets of major Indian cities demanding Free Basics be barred because it would give prominence to certain websites and news sources. They claimed it would also grant Facebook unchallenged control over the information.
Now, many of those who campaigned against Free Basics are celebrating Facebooks latest venture. Kiran Jonnalagadda, one of the co-founders of the net neutrality activist group Save the Internet, said that the new model could transform rural India.
We welcome Facebook’s initiative to expand internet access in India by providing neutral access without discrimination on what sites a user may visit,” he told Mashable. “We are glad to see that Facebook has learnt from their earlier mistakes and responded positively,
Meanwhile, Google has joined the race to get India online by offering free high speed WiFi at 100 railways stations by the end of 2016, the largest public WiFi service in the world.
In rapidly developing India, a mobile phone revolution has reached even the most remote villages. Smartphones are increasingly widespread, but data connections are slow, expensive and weak, especially in rural parts of the country.
Despite rising incomes and access to computers and smartphones, weak internet infrastructure means two-thirds of Indias 1.25 billion population are still not online. According to one report, internet usage in India could double to over 730 million by 2020.
For tech giants, Indias unconnected population is a vast, unreached market, especially for online advertising. While local telecom providers are failing to provide a good service, Google and Facebook are racing to get the next billion online.
Nikhil Pahwa, a net neutrality activist who also campaigned against Facebooks Free Basics program, wrote an essay arguing that companies like Facebook and Google were finally disrupting the dominance of Indias telecoms cartels.
The WiFi that Facebook is providing only relies on BSNL for backhaul: theyre putting up hotspots and allowing kirana stores (kiosks) to sell recharge cards for Internet access We need more of this: more ISPs, more wires carrying Internet traffic, more hotspots, he writes.
Tech analyst Rahul Chatterjee noted that the size of India’s market has caused tech companies and other industries to provide the necessary infrastructure to bring people online.
Tech companies are providing cheap or free internet to get millions of Indians used to the internet ecosystem, while exposing them to controlled advertising,” he said. “As the digital needs of ordinary rural Indians grow, there could be a huge market for paid services too.
It isnt just the tech giants that are eager for this to happen; financial institutions too are waiting for the day that they are able to correctly assess the lending-worthiness of a rural Indian. If the Indian John Doe suddenly decides to move his life online, then banks could start assessing credit-worthiness just by analyzing someones digital footprint. It could lead to huge economic growth in smaller cities and rural parts of the country.”
Facebook still has ambitions to bring Free Basics to India. In an interview with the Verge, Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook would make another effort to bring the service to India once it was successfully rolled out in other parts of the world.
We have had setbacks in a couple of countries, India of course being the biggest. With a billion people in India not online, its the most important [country] to get right,” Zuckerberg said.
Weve learned a lot about how we need to interact with governments and the political system and regulators, and build support in order to have these things work,” Zuckerberg continued. “And I think well take those lessons forward on the future work were doing in Free Basics, which by the way is continuing to roll out around the world. One day, once weve shown that its a successful program around the world, I hope that well get another chance to come back to India and offer it there, too.”