Although Facebook’s aggressive campaigning in favour of its free basics failed to win much purchase with TRAI, the company has decided to take upon yet another role as a rural ISP. Facebook’s new project will allow it to empower entrepreneurs, enabling them to offer internet to rural subscribers in minute data packages.
Towards this, the company has already purchased bandwidth from the state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) in 125 rural areas. The deal, which cost the company around Rs 10 crore, has equipped it with bandwidth from the largest service provider in the country for a period of three years.
BSNL is also participating in the initiative — which is being dubbed Express Wifi — and indeed, its partner QuadGen is already in the process of setting up Wi-fi hotspots at various locations. The company will rely upon the 2.4 GHz unlicensed frequency band for the purpose, and according to claims, can provide speeds of upto 2 MBPS. More importantly though, the data packs under Express Wifi start for as low as INR 10.
As per Munish Seth, Country Manager for Connectivity Solutions, Facebook India,
“This (Express WiFi) will empower a local entrepreneur to purchase inexpensive hardware and start business to offer internet access in their town or region. Besides, it will also allow customers to purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packages to access the internet via local hotspots.”
You certainly have to give it to Facebook here. Entrepreneurs can get hold of a relatively easy to manage and possibly scalable business model while the general populace get access to the internet and all its myriad of attendant advantages.
Keeping in mind the necessities of adjusting to the rural areas, Facebook has also simplified its software for the rural markets and has made controlling the business easier for the entrepreneurs. For example, billing and sending alerts on data usage are both way easier using this customized version. Also, the company will provide both technical as well as financial assistance to its local partners along the way, to ensure that they do not stumble while taking their first steps.
Again, i cant stress enough upon the potential for benefits such an initiative — if adopted and scaled — possesses, along with being a giant step along the Digital India program. As per Munish Seth,
“Scaling this solution (Express WiFi) will offer benefits to India, including providing a new base of small businesses and accelerating the spread of affordable internet access, which will have economic and social benefits across the country. The long-term objective is for the business model to be economically sustainable for allowing our ISP partners and entrepreneurs in rural India to run a profitable business,”
The Express Wifi is part of the internet.org initiative — which introduced Free basics to the country. However, Facebook’s earlier partnership with Reliance Communications, which involved it in trying to enable access to certain websites without data charges, was halted in its tracks after intervention by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
The Regulatory body is still in the middle of debates over policy and despite mass appeals — which involved it receiving almost 2.4 million comments — is taking its time. To be fair to TRAI though, around 1.9 million of these comments came from Facebook users, who in many cases were woefully ignorant of the whole situation. A decision from the telecom authority on the issue is expected by the end of January.
Anyways, the Express Wifi looks good to go — particularly now that BSNL is in on the plan. While similar programs were initiated (and dropped) in the past as by other companies, this is the first time that an organization of Facebook’s stature is involving itself into it — A fact which can probably be attributed in no small measure to the recent exchange of visits by PM Modi and Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
Although, when you stop to consider the fact that India with its 130 million Facebook-ers — and the another billion potential users — is one of the key markets of the company, well, the involvement does not look half so surprising. Nevertheless, the potential benefits such a program can introduce to India’s rural areas– which are, for a large part economically and technologically backwards — can not be denied in the slightest. In fact, personally, i am going to keep my fingers crossed for its successful implementation.