Facebook hasn’t given up on India.
Months after the social network ran into massive opposition over its plan to bring (an incomplete version of) the internet to rural areas, it has a new plan to bring people online for the first time.
It’s called Express Wi-Fi, and it lets local entrepreneurs and providers sell data to users so they can connect to the internet more cheaply than with traditional data packages.
Facebook is responsible for Internet.org, an initiative “with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have them.”
It’s well-intentioned, but has run into serious problems before — notably with Free Basics, a service that provided users with access to the internet on their smartphones. But it didn’t give its users access the entire internet — just a small portion of it, and was accused by its critics of creating a “walled garden” and hindering free access to information — and was even labelled “digital colonialism.”
India ultimately banned Free Basics altogether, with regulators ruling that it violated net neutrality — the principle that all data should be treated equally — despite heavy lobbying from Facebook in support of it.
Express Wi-Fi seems unlikely to run into similar issues; unlike Free Basics, its users can access the entire internet, not just a selection of pre-approved websites. The BBC reports that tests are currently underway with the new program, and it is already available at 125 “rural hotspots” thanks to a partnership with a state-run telco. According to the Economic Times, preparations for a commercial roll-out are now underway.
“Express Wifi empowers local entrepreneurs to help provide quality internet access to their neighbours and make a steady income. Working with local internet service providers or mobile operators, they’re able to use software provided by Facebook to connect their communities,” Internet.org says on its website.
“When people are able to purchase fast, affordable and reliable internet, they’re able to explore the range of information it has to offer including news, education, health, job postings, entertainment, and communication tools like Facebook.”