After moves by Google and Microsoft, social networking giant Facebook is now looking to provide free or low-cost Internet access in India's rural areas, according to local media reports.
Apparently called WiFi Express, the service Facebook is promoting forms a part of its initiative to offer Internet connectivity in the country's hinterland. Facebook is said to be conducting a pilot of the service at several locations in north India, with reports suggesting the company is experimenting with various business models before it tries to expand across the country.
Facebook, of course, is not the only technology giant with an initiative to connect the unconnected. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is planning to offer WiFi at subsidized rates in India and laying fiber in the state of Telangana in the south of the country for this purpose. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) is seeking permission from India's government to provide Internet connectivity at low prices using white-space technology.
It is easy to see why the Indian market is especially tempting for technology firms: With a population of 1.3 billion, the country remains one of the few large untapped markets in the world. Moreover, a substantial percentage of India's population speaks English. That most of these technology players have failed to make any headway in neighboring China -- the biggest economy in the region -- further bolsters India's importance.
Yet technology players may struggle to realize this potential given basic problems, such as the lack of decent last-mile connectivity. An even bigger worry may be the current debate over net neutrality. In India, there has already been a public outcry about Internet.org, a Facebook-led initiative that offers customers free or heavily discounted access to particular websites. It may be difficult to restrain the technology giants if they control the Internet pipes as well. (See DoT Pushes for Net Neutrality in India and Airtel Zero Sparks Net Neutrality Debate in India.)
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading