Facebook’s plan to bring millions of Indians online won’t involve solar-powered drones, or crazy balloons, or controversial programs like Internet.org. Instead, it involves hotspots. Thousands and thousands of plain old hotspots.
On Thursday, the company announced that it is rolling out 700 Wi-Fi hotspots in four of India’s 29 states — Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Meghalaya — followed by 20,000 more in the next few months across the rest of the country in partnership with Indian carrier Airtel.
Unlike the company’s Internet.org program, which allowed Indians to access Facebook-approved websites for free — and was shut down by regulators for violating net neutrality — Facebook’s new plan, Express WiFi, isn’t gratis. Instead, Facebook has partnered with over 500 local retailers, and other commercial establishments in the four states to make these hotspots available to users at affordable prices.
These partners will be able to set their own prices and data packs for Express WiFi, a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Typical plans, according to Facebook, start out at Rs. 10 for 100MB of data (about 15 cents) and go up to Rs 300 for 20 GB of data a day (about $5).
“Express Wi-Fi is designed to complement mobile data offerings by providing a low-cost, high bandwidth alternative for getting online and access apps, download and stream content,” said Munish Seth, Facebook’s head of connectivity solutions for Asia-Pacific in a statement, but Facebook did not comment on BuzzFeed News’ questions about the speed at which users will be able to access the internet using these hotspots.
Facebook has been testing Express WiFi in India since 2015. It’s the company’s fastest growing market and arguably its most important — 184 million of Facebook’s nearly 2 billion users are from India, and over 200 million Indians use WhatsApp, Facebook’s instant messaging service.
Facebook’s Express WiFi program is similar to what Google has been doing in India for some time now. By the end of 2016, Google installed free, high-speed Wi-Fi at 100 Indian railway stations, and is now expanding the program into cafés, museums, restaurants, and Wi-Fi–starved locations across the country.