Facebook Outpaced by Google on Getting India Connected to Internet

Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai is having better luck than his Facebook Inc. counterpart, Mark Zuckerberg when it comes to connecting India’s population to the internet.

Pichai said in a recent earnings call that Google now has 2 million people using its Wi-Fi service each month after the company began offering free Wi-Fi at about two dozen train stations in the country earlier this year. As the service expands to 100 locations by the year end, millions more will gain access to the service.

By covering the cost for mobile users to connect to select websites and services on their phones, Facebook had also sought last year to get people online. However India’s telecom regulator blocked that effort, called Free Basics, in February. The program was designed for people who can’t afford expensive mobile-data charges and the blocking of the program was a setback for Zuckerberg, who had visited India to promote the program.

To amass their next billion users and get them to adopt their products first, Google, Facebook and other providers of web services are all flocking to India. Google has been able to leap ahead by targeting train stations and offering unfettered access. According to C.S. Rao, chairman of QuadGen Wireless Solutions Inc, both are seeking to maximize eyeballs for their revenue-generating ads in the country of 1.3 billion. QuadGen Wireless Solutions Inc is a wireless engineering services company which has more than 2,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots in the country.

“Their popular apps are seen to have huge growth potential in a country with youthful demographics and good technology literacy,” Rao said.

Ways to deliver cheaper internet access would be looked into by Facebook, the company has said. Allowing people to buy affordable data packs via digital vouchers and access Wi-Fi networks called Express Wi-Fi is a service that is being tested by the company.

“The goal of these trials is to find an economically sustainable model for all stakeholders,” Facebook said in a statement.

According to a IAMAI report, with an estimated 462 million internet users in June, about a third of India’s population has internet access. According to Akamai Technologies Inc, India has the lowest average connection speed in Asia and the country is ranked 131st out of 189 countries in broadband penetration. Google is aiming to get more people online and betting that they will use the company’s services and see more ads while it isn’t targeting those using its Wi-Fi with advertising.

“Lack of internet access is a vast problem; the more people address the problem, the better it is,” said Gulzar Azad, head of access programs at Google India. He said that focusing on delivering full internet access is required by the providers.

“If we don’t address it, a few generations of Indians will feel left behind,” he said.

Other initiatives that aim at getting people onto the web in India are also being tried out. Providing low-cost broadband connections via unused TV spectrum is being tried out by Microsoft Corp. which has been named as TV While Spaces. Project Loon, a network of floating balloons to provide internet services to remote and rural areas, is a Google project for which the company has sought launching permission.

(Adapted from Bloomberg)

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