After testing it for over a year, Facebook announced the commercial launch of its Express Wi-Fi service. Targeted at regions with low internet penetration or poor connectivity, the service will now be available through 700 hotspots across four Indian states including Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. As part of the commercial launch, Facebook has partnered with Bharti Airtel to launch an additional 20,000 public hotspots over the course of next few months. Today’s launch in India takes the total number of Express Wi-Fi enabled countries to five. Other countries are Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Indonesia.
The service essentially works in partnership with internet service providers (ISPs), network operators, businesses, etc. to help expand connectivity in regions with higher demand but lower access to internet. These third-party agents use software provided by Facebook to enhance connectivity. It is to be noted that Express Wi-Fi does not mean Facebook’s own internet connection but rather as a platform for entrepreneurs, operators, etc. to leverage existing mobile data plans and connectivity.
With today’s launch anyone can access the Express Wi-Fi network by signing up with an Express Wi-Fi retailer. There are daily, weekly or monthly data packs available at a rate set by Facebook’s partners. These physical and online vouchers are priced at Rs 10-20 for a day and go up to Rs 200-300 for a month. After signing up, one will be able to then connect to the Express Wi-Fi hotspot, register/create an account, login and start browsing or use any app. ALSO READ: Google lands its first Wi-Fi deal for Pune smart city mission
To recall, when Facebook first announced its Express Wi-Fi plans for India, many labelled it as the ‘Free Basics’ program in disguise. The controversial program, earlier called Internet.org, was in partnership with RCom and attempted to give users access to only certain websites for free, thereby curbing the very notion of a free internet. Owing to the intricacies involved in resolving the issue of net neutrality, TRAI shelved Free Basics program until further approval. However, unlike Free Basics, Express Wi-Fi does not put a cap on what a user consumes on the internet.
Interestingly, Facebook’s partnership with Airtel is likely to be seen as a threat to the current market position Reliance Jio enjoys. It is unclear if Reliance Jio will be one of the future operator partners for Express Wi-Fi. It appears Airtel will be benefiting from the service for some time. The commercial launch of Reliance Jio has rattled incumbent players owing to the extremely low-cost data plans on offer. As a result, operators are tweaking data plans and luring customers so as not to lose them to Jio. It will be an interesting market study to see how Airtel – once a market leader and Facebook – leader in social networking platform, together leverage the potential data hungry India has.