By SABRINA CHEN
For The News-Letter
Facebook has a new mission: to build a network of cheap Wi-Fi across rural India. This network, which will span 2,500 square miles of mountainous terrain, will consist of microwave relay dishes attached to towers. The project would help residents in remote villages log on to the Internet almost as easily as people do in the West. This would likely be considered a luxury in a country where cellular data networks are slow and unreliable.
The service, named Express Wi-Fi, does come at a monetary cost: 10 rupees (or about 15 cents) for one day’s access to 100 megabytes of data. Alternatively, $3 can buy 20 gigabytes of data, which can be used over one month. The prices are about one-third the cost of data plans from Airtel, the most widely stabled and reliable cellular operator in the mountains.
Express Wi-Fi is only one part of Internet.org, Facebook’s bigger initiative to bring Internet to billions of people around the world. Another component is a package of free basic Internet services offered through local cellular carriers in over 25 countries. With both the free service and Express Wi-Fi in use there, India has become a prime testing ground for the company.
With better Internet in rural areas, Facebook will also gain popularity. Both the Facebook and WhatsApp (a messaging service owned by Facebook) mobile apps are among the first to be downloaded by consumers. Facebook already has 130 million users in India and a wider user base will eventually lead to more advertising revenue.
Munish Seth, head of Facebook’s connectivity efforts in India, noted that commercial implications are not the primary motivations for the project.
“My mission is to connect people,” Seth told The New York Times. “We hope they will connect to Facebook, but that’s not the primary mission.”
Because Facebook’s expertise is in software and network technology, the company has partnered with AirJaldi, an Indian rural Internet access provider, in order to manage the actual installation and operation of Express Wi-Fi. Together the companies have tested various pricing models such as offering some complementary services, but have decided that a consistent, low price is the best way to go.
Facebook and AirJaldi have decided to have only one authorized seller per village in order to give the vendor a strong incentive to sell as many subscriptions as possible.
“That’s how connectivity spread in terms of satellite TV in India,” Chris Daniels, the global head of the Internet.org project, told The New York Times. “There was an entrepreneur in every town who had a dish. That’s how landline telephony spread. There was an entrepreneur in every town who had a phone and you could buy minutes of talk time on it. So it’s a model that has proved to work in the past and we’re simply applying that to Internet connectivity.”
In Narendra Nagar, a village in the Garhwal region that already has Express Wi-Fi set up, the main street is bathed in high-speed Wi-Fi for customers. The sole vendor of the Wi-Fi is a clothing shop run by Maken Singh Aswal. Aswal sells the data from his clothing shop and receives a steady stream of interested buyers.
One of Aswal’s customers, Ujjwal Kohli, is a 17-year-old high school student who spends about four hours a day surfing the Internet. He uses it for Facebook, for chats with relatives in New Delhi and for playing video games. Kohli noted that although Express Wi-Fi is cheaper than his previous Airtel, it works in select areas only.
This was a common complaint about Express Wi-Fi since it only has a single access point for an entire town. The signal is focused on a single main business strip. Nevertheless the cheaper price and convenience factor have caused the service to gain popularity in the rural towns in which it has been established.