Facebook’s Express WiFi initiative, launched last year, now has around 1,000 hotspots, according to internal documents reported by The Ken (paywall). Like Google, Facebook provides software support for these hotspots while partner ISPs themselves run the network; revenue is then shared between the ISPs and Facebook, the report says. So far, the social media giant has partnered with Tikona, AirJaldi, Shaildhar, and Netvision.
Tikona is the only ISP on which Express WiFi is already active, according to the report. This makes sense, since Tikona essentially delivers broadband to consumers mostly wirelessly — instead of using cable in the last mile, they use a network of long-range WiFi transmitters. Tikona is therefore primed to deliver public WiFi with the infrastructure it has already laid out. Facebook told The Ken that it will use revenue from ISP partners to invest in network expansion.
Data protection and monetization
Facebook plans to monetize Express WiFi in two ways: one way is by collecting actual money from users through retailers. This can happen through coupon purchases at small stores, where users can pay with cash. That way, WiFi access isn’t restricted to people who can use digital payments. The other way of monetizing is similar to what Google is doing: ads. Facebook will place ads on the captive portal where users login with their mobile number and a one-time passcode sent over SMS.
A Tikona representative told The Ken that the ISP will be in charge of collecting and securing this information, and that it will not be shared with Facebook. The social media company apparently doesn’t have any immediate plans of data mining through the open WiFi network. The data collection it does through Facebook’s website and app itself will probably continue anyway.
Competition from TRAI
TRAI was responsible for the regulation that essentially rendered Facebook’s garden-walled Free Basics service illegal. Now, they loom over Facebook as a competitor instead of a Sword of Damocles. Express WiFi offers access to the entire internet, as opposed to Free Basics, and TRAI wants in on that game too. The regulator is currently piloting the WiFi access network interface (WANI), a standardised captive portal for public WiFi. Public WiFi regulations in India require hotspots to authenticate users on the network, and while operators like Facebook and Google SMS one-time passcodes, TRAI wants to standardize the authentication process with Aadhaar in WANI.
While Google’s WiFi hotspots are largely limited to train stations — where they get access to the ISP RailTel’s network — Facebook has much more room to grow. The company is partnering with existing public WiFi providers and signing on shopkeepers to resell WiFi. Google just reached 400 stations this month, fulfilling the goal it set for itself in 2015. Facebook’s success will depend on a variety of factors: its financial arrangements with partner ISPs, its ability to move faster than competitors, its speed in enrolling shopkeepers and other retailers, and so on. But one important factor may be this: whether the social media company’s network will be compelling enough to lure away a large number of consumers already used to a high volume of cheap internet in a telecom market where wireless data prices are in freefall.