Facebook’s Express Wi-Fi launches commercially in India

Express Wi-Fi is one of Facebook’s many connectivity initiatives under its internet.org umbrella. Unlike more futuristic projects like the Aquila drone, though, the emphasis here is on existing Wi-Fi technologies and allowing local entrepreneurs to resell internet access.

In India, Facebook is currently working with a number of local ISPs and 500 local entrepreneurs, but that number is about to grow quite a bit.

As the company announced today, it’s now launching the service commercially in India and has partnered with the Indian telecom firm Bharti Airtel, which plans to bring an additional 20,000 hotspots online, starting in the next few months. The other ISPs involved in the project so far are  AirJaldi in Uttarakhand, LMES in Rajasthan, Tikona in Gujarat and soon with Shaildhar in Meghalaya.

The company previously launched the service commercially in Kenya and it’s also trialing it in Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia.

As James Beldock, Facebook’s product manager for Express Wi-Fi, told me, the idea behind this project was always to create an entrepreneurial grassroots base for the service. That means Airtel and its other ISP partners will continue this work with local entrepreneurs who want to resell internet access to their communities. “Our strategy has always been that these programs work if they are financially sustainable for the partners we work with,” Beldock told me, and added that while Facebook provides the software, it’s the ISPs and their partners that decide what to charge, for example. “Facebook’s strategy is to enable partners to make connectivity at scale sustainable, not to dictate pricing.”

Wi-Fi, of course, is a far easier onramp to the internet than most other means of getting online, Beldock stressed. After all, you don’t need a SIM card or data plan to go online. It also offers a low-cost way of getting online (with daily, weekly or monthly data packs) and the partnership with local entrepreneurs could help the local economy.

As Beldock noted, the challenge of expanding the service to other countries isn’t so much technical as it is about understanding the local markets and needs. Chances are, though, that we’ll soon see more commercial launches in the other countries where Facebook is already testing the service.