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Facebook’s Attempt to Fulfill Modi’s Dream - Express WiFi

Everyone knows that Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans on connecting 6,00,000 villages across the country with high-speed internet. He assumes that if his “Digital India” dream is fulfilled, the Indian economy will expand from $2 trillion to $20 trillion. That really  sounds an enthusiastic plan, even for the world’s largest democracy.
But, when Modi spoke at Facebook’s town hall conference at Menlo Park last September, it seemed like he meant business. He illustrated his plans to connect local governments with high-speed internet and also spoke about how important social media is in shaping public policy.
In February last year, Facebook launched internet.org in partnership with Reliance Communications. This project was meant to connect Indians by offering truncated versions of selective partner sites. It acquired a lot of flak from the supporters of net neutrality, who were concerned that Facebook could essentially control the content Indians would consume. Critics of the initiative were against the idea of a “walled garden” access to the internet.

Old Wine In New Bottle?

This led the company to relaunch the project as Free Basics, where all developers and websites could come on board as long as they met the important technical criteria laid down by Facebook. Yet again, critics rejected the project as a rebranding of internet.org.
Interestingly, in February, just a few months after Modi’s meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, India’s telecom regulator ruled in favor of net neutrality by prohibiting discriminatory pricing for data services. That urged Facebook to dismiss the Free Basics initiative in India altogether.

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In a blog post in February this year, Mark Zuckerberg expressed his disappointment with the regulator’s decision and added, “Connecting India is an important goal we won't give up on because more than a billion people in India don't have access to the internet. We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that's why we're so committed to connecting them.”
So, that urges the question, is Zuckerberg now pulling out yet another bunny out of the box with Express WiFi? Or is his latest effort just at an attempt to repackage his Free Basics?

What Is Express WiFi?

According to Facebook's internet.org, "Express Wifi" is active in India and it is "working with carriers, internet service providers, and local entrepreneurs to help increase connectivity to underserved locations around the world".
Facebook refused to comment on BloombergQuint’s query on how different this project is from Free Basics. Instead, a Facebook spokesperson said in an email, “Currently, we are working with ISP and operator partners to test Express Wi-Fi with public Wi-Fi deployments in many pilot sites. This solution empowers ISPs, operators, and local entrepreneur-retailers to provide quality internet access to their village, town or region.”
 Although it’s unclear, if the company would offer full internet access or access to only a selective sites.

Is It Free?

Must Read: Be Safe From Free Wi-Fi

One thing is clear that unlike Google’s free WiFi , Express WiFi is going to be a paid service. Again, while the company shied away from sharing any details or elaborating on pricing plans, its spokesperson said, “Express WiFi customers can purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packs via digital vouchers to access the Internet on the Express WiFi network.”
The company believes a sustainable commercial model is one which can scale to bring all of India online, he added.
So, it seems like Express WiFi is a whole different plan considering that it’s a paid service and Facebook will only present its technology for last mile connectivity. For high-speed internet, the company will work with local internet service providers.

Facebook Isn't Alone

Facebook isn’t the only global tech behemoth that India seems to have wooed. Google has also tied up with the Indian government to bring high-speed WiFi to 400 railway across India.
The tech giant has been working with the Indian Railways and RailTel to bring high-speed WiFi to 100 of the busiest stations in India before the end of this year. It will eventually expand this scheme to cover additional 300 stations. According to Sundar Pichai of Google, the public WiFi project will be the largest in the country and based on the number of potential users, it will be amongst the largest in the world.
That’s not all. Earlier this year, Google announced a new platform, Google Station, which will take public WiFi to places like schools, malls, and restaurants to improve connectivity.

It’s clear that tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Uber are leaving no stone unturned in a bid to crack the Indian market. And while their efforts seem impressive, in a time when consumers have become increasingly aware and tech-savvy, effective communication plans for consumers has become imperative. Many Indians are cautious, especially after the debacles that were internet.org and Free Basics. The company has tried repackaging old wine in a new bottle earlier and they didn’t seem to attract any buyers.
Apar Gupta, a top technology lawyer in New Delhi said, “At this stage, I would encourage Facebook to share further data and specifications that would build trust given the large scale opposition that existed against Free Basics. I support the role of private persons in extending and increasing access to the Internet without economic or technical discrimination while safeguarding user privacy."
Express WiFi is currently at the trial stage in India, but to ensure the success of the project, one thing is clear – transparency will be key.
(With inputs from PTI)

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