Social media behemoth Facebook has quietly rolled out an Android app for a WiFi service that lets users pay for high-speed internet connectivity at specific partner locations. The WiFi programme, called Express WiFi, was originally launched in India in November 2016, before being rolled out to more than 700 hotspots across the country in May last year, and then to four more countries – Kenya, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Tanzania. According to TechCrunch, the new app is currently available for download in Kenya and Indonesia; there is no word yet on when the remaining regions will get the app.
Express WiFi allows businesses to tie up with Facebook to set up internet hotspots in their locations. These hotspots are a boon especially in developing markets, offering higher-speed internet connections as compared to often slower mobile data packages. However, connecting to the hotspots has posed a bit of a problem in the past as users had to download an app from their telecom provider or use a mobile browser to access the internet through the system. There was also no way of knowing if any hotspots were available nearby. The new Express WiFi app takes care of these problems, by offering a single solution to find nearby hotspots and connect with them. Facebook has partnered with D-Net in Indonesia and Surf in Kenya as ISP partners for the service.
Express WiFi is yet another attempt by Facebook to provide internet access in developing markets. The platform sees these new emerging regions as its next big opportunity, and by creating services that help bring people online, it can leverage goodwill to build consumer loyalty. However, the platform has not always got the formula right. Its last well-known attempt – Free Basics (also known as Internet.org) – nearly ended in a disaster. Facebook was panned for what many people saw as a violation of net neutrality by allowing access to only a certain bunch of low-bandwidth services that Facebook had approved. The service was even banned in India where it was touted as a great way of reaching “the next billion”. Facebook has clearly learned its lessons from the “Free Basics” debacle though; Express WiFi lets users access whatever they like on the internet at competitive connection speeds – at a price.
A Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch, “Facebook is releasing the Express Wi-Fi app in the Google Play store to give people another simple and secure way to access fast, affordable internet through their local Express Wi-Fi hotspots.” There is no word yet when – or if – an iOS version of the app will be available.
Facebook saw its first-ever reduction in the number of users in the US and Canada in Q4 2017. Daily active users fell by 700,000 during this period, arguably because of changes to Facebook’s news feed that switched focus from viral and engaging content from publishers to content from friends and family. At the same time, average revenue per users has grown four times between 2012 and 2016 in markets across the rest of the world. Given these statistics, Facebook is likely looking to push further internationally, where many populations and prospective consumers still lack access to the internet. Hence, services like Express WiFi will likely be a crucial component of Facebook’s growth plans in the near future.