Facebook on charm offensive to dominate internet access in India

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is readying a new scheme to bring cheap internet access to rural India in a race against Google to reach the two-thirds of India’s 1.25bn population currently not online.

Previous attempts by the tech giant to provide the public with internet access were stopped in their tracks. In February India’s telecoms regulator blocked Facebook's Free Basics internet service app, ruling in favour of net neutrality protestors.

Free Basics was designed to offer the public with free access to a select number of sites. The free content included selected local news and weather forecasts, the BBC, Wikipedia and some health sites.

More than a million people registered complaints about the plan, arguing it would give prominence to certain websites and news sources chosen by Facebook. They claimed it would also give Facebook unchallenged control over the information.

At the time Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wrote he was "disappointed" with the decision but said that Facebook is “committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world”.

"Connecting India is an important goal we won't give up on, because more than a billion people in India don't have access to the internet. We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities,” he wrote.

In response to the complaints, the company is currently testing Express Wi-Fi in India. The service, according to Facebook, will allow people to buy fast, reliable and affordable data packages.

The new model has been welcomed by those who ardently protested the Free Basics incentive, including Kiran Jonnalagadda, one of the co-founders of the net neutrality activist group Save the Internet.

“We welcome Facebook's initiative to expand internet access in India by providing neutral access without discrimination on what sites a user may visit," he told Mashable. "We are glad to see that Facebook has learnt from their earlier mistakes and responded positively,”

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg is working to make Free Basics legal. He told the Verge that Facebook would make another effort to bring the service to India once it was successfully rolled out in other parts of the world.

“We’ve learned a lot about how we need to interact with governments and the political system and regulators, and build support in order to have these things work," Zuckerberg said. "And I think we’ll take those lessons forward on the future work we’re doing in Free Basics, which by the way is continuing to roll out around the world. One day, once we’ve shown that it’s a successful program around the world, I hope that we’ll get another chance to come back to India and offer it there, too."

Its part of a battle between Facebook and Google to reach the two-thirds of India’s 1.25bn population that are still not online. Google’s response is to offer free high speed WiFi at 100 railways stations by the end of 2016. In June Google revealed that close to 1.5m people are using free WiFi at 19 railway stations in India where the project has gone live.

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