India already chose free and open internet over what Facebook had to offer once. But second time’s the charm, right?
Facebook is launching ‘Express Wi-Fi,’ a program that will allow customers to purchase low-cost data packages from their local internet service provider to access the fast internet via local hotspots. Although the company has not announced a commercial rollout date, it has already tested a pilot version with 125 rural wifi hotspots, according to the BBC. “We are currently in the early stages of testing Express Wi-Fi with multiple local ISP partners in India,” a Facebook spokesperson told Quartz.
The social media giant’s last outing in India was met with heavy backlash. Internet.org, its free service launched in February 2015 , irked net neutrality supporters by limiting access to sites handpicked by Facebook—the opposition left CEO Mark Zuckerberg befuddled. A year after its release, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) put an end to the initiative. With its latest attempt to re-enter the Indian market, Facebook has removed this point of contention by ditching selective access altogether.
With user growth in US and Europe stalling, the company has to focus its efforts beyond the west. Second only to the US with 142 million monthly active users, India is a prime market for Facebook. “India is a country with tremendous potential in terms of new users,” Erna Alfred Liousas, a social media analyst at Forrester, told Quartz. “Since Express Wi-Fi isn’t stipulating which sites users can access, and isn’t free, hopefully they’ll receive a more favorable reception.”
Low internet speeds, weak infrastructure, and a lack of consumer trust are among Facebook’s challenges in a region like India. It faces another big threat: competition. “Google, Facebook, Amazon and many others (Uber, Alibaba, etc) are focusing attention on ‘the next billion’ users to come online in emerging markets as a huge opportunity,” Deutsche Bank analyst Ross Sandler wrote in an investor note in July.
Google even got a head start. In September 2015, the search giant announced plans to offer free high speed wifi in 400 railway stations across the country—at no cost—and by last month, the service was already active in 19 stations with 1.5 million people using the service.
If Facebook manages to provide internet services under its brand name in India, more people will likely become acquainted with and join the social network. Or at least that’s the plan.