Will Facebook finally succeed in bringing Wi-Fi to rural India?

Facebook will try – again – with a plan to offer Wi-Fi to rural and poor communities in India, after the company's first attempt was blocked in February.

Matt Rourke/AP/File
In this file photo, the Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia.

Facebook is taking another swing at bringing Wi Fi to rural India.

After the company's first attempt was met with controversy and ultimately blocked, the social media giant is trying again – this time with a paid product.

Through Express Wifi, the technology giant's new initiative, local internet service providers (ISPs) would be able to provide phone owners in India with data at low cost. In this program, Facebook provides the software to support the local businesses as they sell and provide internet service accessible via public Wi-Fi hot spots.

"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," a statement on Facebook's website for the initiative, Internet.org, describes Express Wifi.

Facebook's previous initiatives to provide Wi-Fi in rural and poor communities have not always been welcomed with open arms. The company's earlier attempt to provide a limited, free internet service to rural areas, called Free Basics, was shot down by India's telecommunications regulator in February.

The regulator argued that Free Basics violated net neutrality, the idea that internet users should be able to access all content and applications without being directed toward or blocked from particular content. That program provided access to the internet for free via mobile phones, but users could only access a version of Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and some local websites.

A group of developers and activists penned an open letter to Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in May 2015 calling the Free Basics program a "walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services."

The initiative was criticized as not really targeting the intended demographic.

"This clearly is not a plan you want if you are focusing on the poorest of the poor, but it works for a target of assisting perhaps middle and urban-middle class," Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told The Christian Science Monitor's Lisa Suhay in December. "It is really putting the cart before the horse. Providing Internet access presumes a certain level of funds, a certain demographic. Who is the target here? It’s not really the poor is it?"

So then who would Facebook's initiative benefit? Facebook, some said.

Critics argued that the Free Basics program was designed to funnel more users to the social media site and expand Facebook's own users. 

"The fears that Facebook is going to get new consumers locked into Facebook, that’s a problem to some extent because social networks rely on the number of people they have. The more people they have the harder it would be for a new local social network to defeat Facebook or become prominent in, say, India or somewhere else," First Amendment lawyer Marvin Ammori told the Monitor in December.

But, he said diplomatically, "Generally it’s good when a company’s goals and interests dovetail with the public interest."

And now Facebook is taking another stab at it. The company has announced that they are already testing Express Wifi with local ISPs, according to The Wall Street Journal.

With access to the entire internet, Facebook is unlikely to run into the same problems as they did with Free Basics. But the technology company still may benefit from the initiative.

Ian Fogg, an analyst at IHS Technology, told the BBC, "In emerging economies, Facebook is pursuing an intervention strategy to increase the pace of internet and online usage because this will also raise the addressable market for Facebook."

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