Facebook's latest effort to provide people with internet so they can become Facebook users is taking shape as Express Wifi, a new program that lets phone owners in India purchase data from local internet service providers. Effectively, Facebook is providing software that helps local ISPs and entrepreneurs sell and provide internet service in rural areas, which can be accessed via public Wi-Fi hotspots. Express Wifi has already completed a trial period in the country with a local state-run telecom and about 125 rural Wi-Fi hotspots, according to the BBC.
This is Facebook's second attempt to provide connections for one of the world's most populous and fast-growing countries. The key difference: this time, internet access isn't being given away. The social network tried to offer internet in India for free starting last year with a program called Free Basics. However, the company faced substantial regulatory roadblocks and Free Basics was eventually banned by India's Telecom Regulatory Authority in February.
India banned Facebook's Free Basics program on the grounds it violated net neutrality
Because Free Basics provides access to certain websites, namely facebook.com, for free, it technically violates the tenets of net neutrality. That practice, known as "zero rating," has become a popular way to win over customers, but it may run afoul of net neutrality principles by way of incentivizing people to use some services over others. If access to Facebook is provided for free in India, the logic goes, there is no hope for a competing social network to grow so long as it consumes mobile data. Some believe the net neutrality argument with regards to Free Basics is a deflection, and that some government regulators in fact want to spy on citizens, which Facebook would not allow, according to Reuters.
"While we're disappointed with today's decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement following the Free Basics ban. "Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet." Internet.org, the industry consortium Facebook founded back in 2013, also dabbles in solar-powered internet drones, satellites, and other hardware infrastructure to provide internet to developing countries and rural areas.
The FCC has yet to rule on zero rating
Nonetheless, zero rating has proved to be Internet.org's biggest snag thus far. Despite the pushback in India, the practice has created a confusing and murky gray area for the US's Federal Communications Commission, which has yet to rule on whether it violates the Open Internet Order. For instance, T-Mobile uses zero rating as a way to promote its network with programs like Music Freedom and Binge On, which exempt popular music and video streaming services from counting toward a customer's data cap. While FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler initially seemed okay with the idea back in November, pressure has been mounting from tech companies and activist organizations asking the FCC to reexamine the practice.