Facebook's plan is to offer WiFi-enabled broadband services under their initiative Express WiFi, which is currently in beta phase
After the launch of Free Basics in India, social media platform Facebook is set to wear the hat of an internet service provider across rural areas in the country.
This is to enable entrepreneurs to offer Internet in small data packages -- as low as Rs 10 -- to consumers.
Facebook has purchased bandwidth from state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited in 125 rural areas for Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million) for three years, BSNL chairman and managing director Anupam Shrivastava told Business Standard.
Bandwidth is usually referred to as the amount of information/data which can be transmitted over a network, in bits per second.
Consumers can access Internet through WiFi hotspots.
These are being set up by BSNL's partner QuadGen across these locations. The Wifi services run on an unlicensed band -- 2.4 GHz frequency -- and consumers can get a speed of about two megabits per second, or Mbps, Shrivastava added.
Facebook's plan is to offer WiFi-enabled broadband services under their initiative Express WiFi, which is currently in beta phase.
Said Munish Seth, country manager-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."
The tieup with BSNL came amidst the visit of Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg to India last year in October, which was his second visit in 12 months. Before this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited the Facebook HQ in California in September last year.
Facebook has customised software for rural markets, making it simpler to do things, including billing and sending alerts on data usage.
It will partner with local ISPs to expand network access, besides developing connectivity ecosystem by providing technical and financial assistance to local ISP partners as well as entrepreneurs, Seth added.
"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," Seth said.
The social media giant had earlier partnered Reliance Communications to offer Free Basics, under which mobile subscribers can access certain websites without incurring data charges.
The initiative has run into rough weather with the telecom regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asking RCom to stop the commercial launch of Free Basics till further approval.
Trai is also in the midst of framing its policy on differential pricing of data services by operators, which will decide the future of plans, including Free Basics and zero-rated platforms.
These plans created furore on the issue of net neutrality, with many experts saying there is violation of basic net neutrality tenets.
Facebook resorted to aggressive marketing to garner support for its Free Basics in India. Its users here were prompted to send mails to Trai in support of the product.
Trai received about 2.4 million comments, of which around 1.9 million comments came from Facebook users on its consultation paper for differential pricing in data services.
Trai is expected to come up with its recommendations on the issue by the end of January.
Both Free Basics and Express WiFi are part of internet.org, through which Facebook is trying to connect the unconnected onto the internet across various countries, including Facebook.
Through connectivity lab, which again is a part of internet.org, it plans to expand network access to locations that have none or limited connectivity, by focusing on infrastructure -- including satellites -- lasers and unmanned aerial systems.
With about 130 million users in the country, India is a key market for Facebook. India has the social media platform's largest app developer community outside the US.
Of the 5,000 developers on Facebook's app development platform FbStart, around 1,000 are from the Asia-Pacific region, of which 40 per cent are from India.
More than 75 per cent of the top-grossing apps in India are integrated with Facebook.
Image: Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Reuters