Consider this. City life has worn you down, and you need a break. A vacation seems like a good idea. Bags packed, you head for the hills. Unfortunately, somewhere outside the city limits, your mobile data starts to falter. And then, it stops working altogether. Seamless network coverage is restricted to ads, it seems.
Now, you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you can no longer navigate to your destination. Resigned to your fate, you stop at a chai stall to gather your bearings. While sipping your tea, you notice a sign on the wall. Facebook Express Wifi, it reads. Hope springs anew. You fork over Rs 10 to the shopkeeper, and you now have an hour’s worth of internet. You download maps to your destination, maybe even some driving music, and you’re on your way. Crisis averted, thanks to social networking giant Facebook’s latest ploy to corner the Indian internet market.
This isn’t Facebook’s first attempt. That (now dubious) distinction belongs to Facebook’s Free Basics, which died amidst a storm of criticism for violating net neutrality laws. The principle of net neutrality is that all internet services be treated equally and no service should gain an undue advantage. Free Basics, which offered users a limited, Facebook-centric experience, was banned by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) in February 2016 after a sustained public outcry.
Express WiFi is Facebook’s decidedly less controversial follow up to it.
An Indian pilot project for Express WiFi, the first such globally, was revealed a few months after the demise of Free Basics in India. The plan was similar—provide internet access to people who might not otherwise have any. Facebook planned to partner with “carriers, internet service providers, and local entrepreneurs” to set up more than 20,000 hotspots across the country, which users could wirelessly connect to.
The premise is sound. Though the story of data usage in India seems to be going through a purple patch with Jio driving tariffs down, the true picture is far more sobering. Major telecom operators such as Airtel, Vodafone, and Idea Cellular are still having trouble convincing users to switch from 2G networks (which only handle voice and SMS) to 4G networks (data networks). Over 70% of Airtel’s roughly 304 million users (as of March 2018) are still on 2G networks. At Idea, the percentage of data customers stands at just 24.06% of the total customer base of 194.5 million.
The urban-rural divide is also staggering. Trai’s December 2017 data shows that out of the total 445.96 million internet users in India, just 132.03 million belong to rural India.