Facebook has announced the commercial launch of its ambitious internet-connectivity initiative, ‘Express WiFi’, in India. The Menlo Park, California-based social networking giant says it has tied up with the country’s largest telecom company, Bharti Airtel, to deploy around 20,000 hotspots to provide internet connectivity to people in far-flung areas. Facebook has already been running trials of its latest internet connectivity program in rural and underdeveloped regions across four states in the country - Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. The American tech giant has also reportedly partnered with over 500 retailers around the country, and is currently offering its service through 700 hotspots in the four aforementioned states as part of an ongoing trial that started in 2015.
After Indian telecom regulator TRAI had ruled against Facebook’s controversial ‘Free Basics’ service for alleged breach of net-neutrality norms in 2015, the U.S. tech giant started its quest to find other ways in which it could bring inexpensive internet to the hitherto unconnected population in the developing world without ruffling the feathers of government regulators. That being the case, this particular service will be a paid offering unlike the earlier ill-fated venture, which was free and, offered connectivity only to a few websites and services handpicked by Facebook and its partner ISP, Reliance Communications. Once bitten twice shy, Facebook says it will not distinguish between websites and protocols while allocating bandwidth this time around, making it complaint with net-neutrality norms backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
It remains to be seen whether Express WiFi will indeed adhere to net-neutrality norms in the long run, but for now, Facebook and Airtel are both trying to project the service as something that will help in empowering millions of disenfranchised and dis-empowered Indians by bringing them online. Meanwhile, India is not the only country where Facebook is running its Express WiFi trials. According to reports, the service is currently active in a number of developing countries around the world, including Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia. As part of its foray into India, Facebook has tied up not only with multinational behemoth Airtel, but with a number of small, local ISPs to bring Express WiFi to its target audience. The service has been deployed in partnership with AirJaldi in Uttarakhand, LMES in Rajasthan and Tikona in Gujarat. The service will also soon roll out on Shaildhar's network in Meghalaya. In case you’re willing to hook up to Facebook’s inexpensive internet service, all you have to do is sign up with an Express Wi-Fi retailer and buy a data pack that comes in daily, weekly or monthly options.