Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg Hosts Internet.org Summit

Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) is in no mood to give up on India. Social Times reports that Facebook has now launched something called Express Wi-fi, a new scheme with hopes of bringing connectivity and internet access to all parts of India.

According to Facebook’s internet.org website, Express Wi-fi is a global venture to work with carriers and service providers to bring ease of Internet access to locations that lack proper connectivity. Local entrepreneurs can also use the Express Wi-fi to provide connectivity to their neighbours. At the same time, they can work with local service providers and mobile operators using the software from Facebook. Express Wi-fi promises fast, affordable and reliable Internet, allowing people to access all kinds of data and information on the Internet.

Interestingly, it is not the first time when Facebook is trying to woo internet users in India. In the past Facebook tried to penetrate the ISP market with FreeBasics. While the company was almost ready to launch, the debate over the neutrality of the Internet forced Facebook to go on backfoot. Though the company left no stone unturned to get the FreeBasics launched in India, the fierce opposition and criticism from renowned industry leaders and experts left Facebook disappointed.

With Express Wifi, Facebook is onece again trying to win the India market, albeit with a bit relaxed terms and strategy.

Facebook Desperate to Have India: Why?

It is kind of intriguing why Facebook has so much interest in India. To understand this, we must first compare the existing user statistics worldwide.

APAC Market Has A Higher Growth

Facebook has a total of 1.79 billion monthly active users as of Q3 2016. It is, however, interesting to know that between Q3 2014 and Q3 2016, only 23 million new users have been added in the United States and Canada. While the company has added nearly ten times (203) more new users in the Asia Pacific region. These statistics shows a huge 47.65% growth in Facebook’s user base in Asia Pacific in Q3 2016 from Q3 2014. While the growth of Facebook’s user base is much lower at 11.1% in the United States and Canada.

Penetration Levels are Main Cause

The justification for this stems from the penetration of internet among the population of both these regions. Asia Pacific has two major countries, China and India, with a large population. China has the Internet penetration of 52.2% of the overall population and India has a mere 34.8%. US, Japan and the UK have higher penetration levels, with 88.5%, 91.9% and 92.6% respectively.

The US Brings In Revenue, But APAC Has the Maximum Users

According to the report by eMarketer, by the end of 2016, more than half (50.3%) of the US population will access their Facebook account at least once a month. Additionally, an earlier report by Dazeinfo in Q2 2016, asserted that while the US and Canada made the greatest contribution to the Facebook’s overall revenue, it was APAC region from where Facebook got the maximum number of new users.

India Is The Biggest Target

Without a doubt, the APAC market has a lot of potential for growth, especially the Indian market due to low penetration of Internet, Mobile and Facebook. As mentioned earlier, APAC has two major countries – India and China.

Facebook is growing faster in India than rest of the world. At present, India has nearly 77 million daily active users, an increase of 22% from last year. Still, The internet penetration is quite low, a mere 34.8% with 462 million internet users.

According to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, “There are a billion people in India who do not have access to the Internet yet and if you care about connecting everyone in the world, you can’t do that if there are so many people who don’t even have access to basic connectivity.”

Previous Attempts Foiled by TRAI

Internet.org or Free Basics was Facebook’s brain child in bringing connectivity to the India. Looking at Facebook’s interest in the Indian grounds, as mentioned earlier, the first attempt to bring in ease of Internet access to the population was Free Basics.

What is Free Basics?

According to Facebook developers, Free Basics consist of free services that are basic to our lives, like news, health, travel, sports and more. This initiative worked towards bringing more people online.

Free Basics was already an initiative across Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was launched in India in November 2015, via Reliance Communications network.

Issues with Free Basics

What people didn’t realise was that though Free Basics made way for another major concern- net neutrality. Free basics was meant to offer certain websites and applications for free without any bandwidth charges. However, this initiative curbed the idea of equality to all services. After all, the Free Basics offered access to only selected services. Thus, it resulted in another major issue of net neutrality in the country.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality basically means that ISP’s should provide equal access to all data on the Internet without any kind of discrimination or prejudice. According to Social Times, around 86% of a survey with 3,000 people voiced their support for the Free Basics initiative.

TRAI Took Action

Unfortunately for Facebook, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) did not support their initiative. A tussle ensued between the two, causing people to protest against the Free Basics and causing turmoil in the country. Ultimately, the TRAI won the fight against Facebook. The new net neutrality rules prohibited ISP’s from charging different prices to different parts of the Web. This ultimately resulted in the complete ban of Free Basics.

China to Remain a Roadblock?

You may ask, why not China? After all, it is a huge market in the APAC region too. With a penetration of 52.2%, China is a greenfield for Facebook user growth.  So, why isn’t there any growth in their market?

Facebook was effectively banned in China in 2009, as the government believed that the social network was the reason for the propagation of the riots in Xinjiang.

Additionally, China had also blocked websites like Twitter, YouTube and Google, and censored politically sensitive words. This firewall led to the huge success of domestic companies like Tencent’s WeChat, Sina’s Weibo and Baidu. However, the government also ensures the censoring and monitoring of these sites as well.

Google pulled out of the country due to the excess censoring. But, unlike Google, Facebook is still trying its best to woo China back. Despite the censorship and monitoring, Zuckerberg has been working on ways to remove the ban. Thus, in the meanwhile, Facebook has only the Indian market to consider.

India Holds The Key To Success for Facebook

While the US ad market slows down, both Facebook and Google are searching for the new avenues of growth and revenues. Luckily for them, India’s under-penetrated market is perfect for growth. Hence, both the companies are fighting for digital dominance on the Indian grounds.

India is now finally showing up on the world radar and major companies are fighting to find their way in. India is slowly giving up on the tags like ‘third world country’ and ‘underdeveloped country’. It is the new playground for the big daddies of the digital industry. However, how far will Facebook succeed with “Express Wifi”, only the time will tell !