Social networking giant Facebook has formed a partnership with India's largest service provider Bharti Airtel to launch as many as 20,000 WiFi hotspots as part of its Express WiFi program.
Like many of Facebook's other emerging market initiatives, that program is aimed at boosting the availability of Internet services in rural and underserved communities. Specifically, it is designed to provide a low-cost, high-bandwidth alternative to cellular technology for consumers who want to access online content.
Facebook says it began testing Express WiFi in India in 2015 and has subsequently made it commercially available in nearly 700 hotspots in the states of Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. The social networking company has teamed up with more than 500 local retailers and is looking for additional partners to expand its presence. It is also believed to be in talks with government-backed Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) about setting up public hotspots.
"We believe this [Express WiFi] will help in empowering millions of Indians by bringing them online and contribute to the government's Digital India vision," said Ajai Puri, Bharti Airtel's chief operating officer (for India and South Asia), in a company statement. The operator says it will begin Express WiFi hotspots over the next few months.
The launch of Express WiFi came after Facebook was forced to pull the plug on its Free Basics initiative in India. Introduced in 2015, Free Basics provided free access to a select websites for Indian smartphone customers, with Facebook partnering Reliance Communications -- now India's fifth-biggest operator -- on the service. But a backlash from supporters of net neutrality, who claimed that Free Basics was in violation of that principle, led the Indian government to block the service. (See India Deals Death Blow to Facebook's Free Basics .)
As a service that customers pay to use, Express WiFi seems unlikely to have the same problems and has already gone live in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia, besides India.
India's base of Internet users has mushroomed in the last year following the launch of free data services by new entrant Reliance Jio. The fall in smartphone prices and affordable data rates have led to a rise in overall data consumption, and technology players like Facebook are looking to cash in on the trend.
Google is also trying to woo Indian customers. The company has partnered with government-owned RailTel to offer free Internet access at 100 railway stations across India.
News of the tie-up between Facebook and Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) came in the same week the operator reported falls in sales and profits during its fourth quarter (ending in March) that it blamed on the impact of RJio's market entry.
Indian revenues for the quarter fell 7.1%, to 170.4 billion Indian rupees ($2.64 billion), compared with the year-earlier period, while net income slumped 72%, to INR3.7 billion ($57.3 million).
— Gagandeep Kaur, Contributing editor, special to Light Reading