Facebook India is on a new mission. The social media giant has partnered with a number of local ISPs and over 500 local entrepreneurs to build greater internet access, especially in remote areas.
After disrupting the telecom sector with its low cost data rates, Reliance Jio may have given digital India dream a big push, but the way ahead is long and challenging. In a bid to make India more connected and make it an economy that leverages internet optimally, Facebook recently came up with its new service, Express Wi-Fi. The programme ties up with entrepreneurs to help them set up public Wi-Fi hotspots and provide Internet to residents in poor connectivity areas.
Speaking at the ongoing Women Economic Forum in New Delhi, Umang Bedi, Managing Director - India and South Asia at Facebook, explained the rationale behind Facebook’s aggressive push for greater internet connectivity, “We are trying to have not just a business model, but a mission to make this world more open and connected and give people the power to share. Over the next decade, we will focus our attention on building communities because communities bring you closer to the offline world. Moreover, the moment you are friends with someone on Facebook, you find that sense of community and belonging and it strengthens the platform as well.”
The Express Wi-Fi program comes into picture a year after Facebook pulled the plug on the Free Basics programme that was criticised for obstructing net neutrality. Unlike Free Basics that provided access to select websites for free, Express Wi-Fi works on a paid model and the access will not be restricted to any particular website.
“India, for us, is a very critical part of that strategy. In the villages, when people get connected to the internet, the first few things they do is go on Whataspp and Facebook. The beauty of our mission of connecting people is that people get access to education, financial services, healthcare, jobs and dignity of life. We launched this partnership with Airtel where we are providing access points to remote parts of India across 20,000 locations, creating entrepreneurs in a private public partnership model,” added Bedi.
One of the biggest concerns of internet in India has been its patriarchal nature. According to global mobile industry monitor GSM Association, despite the population being split almost evenly between the two genders, the female mobile phone penetration of 28% was much lower than the 43% figure for males. According to IAMAI-IMRB report, urban India with an estimated population of 444 million already has 269 million (60%) using the internet. Rural India, with an estimated population of 906 million as per 2011 census, has only 163 million (17%) internet users. Thus, there are still approximately 750 million potential users in rural India who are yet to become internet users.
Comparing internet to a society that has 70-80% men and 20% women, Bedi underlined the need to make internet available equally and the consequences of not addressing the issue. “Gender imbalances can lead to extinction of societies. That is the state of internet in India today. Of all the 400 million people that are online, which will rise to 700 million by 2020, 75% of people online are men and that is dangerous and scary too. The single biggest vision that we have resolved for is getting women entrepreneurs online and giving them communities that they can access.”