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Facebook and Google Are Racing to Supply India with Internet Access

The U.S. tech giants are keen to provide Web connections—but can a new scheme help Facebook recover from its Free Basics blunder?

In India, Facebook and Google are competing to supply Internet connections. But while the social network’s early lead in one of the world’s largest emerging markets has been severely eroded, it’s now preparing to stage a comeback.

In 2015, Facebook launched a Free Basics scheme in India that supplied people with free mobile Internet. But there was a catch: only certain websites—Facebook and Wikipedia included—could be accessed without incurring data charges. Indian regulators took a dim view, claiming that the practice—known as “zero rating”—breached the principle of net neutrality.

Ultimately, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India banned Free Basics in its existing form. It did, however, suggest that Facebook could continue its efforts if it made the entire Internet, rather than just some parts of it, free to use (something Facebook opted not to do).

Meanwhile, Google had already begun plans to roll out an Internet plan of its own in the country. Having announced a collaboration with Indian Railways last year, the company has introduced high-speed Wi-Fi in at least 23 railroad stations. Now, Business Insider reports that Google has two million people using its Wi-Fi hot spots every day. Long-term, it plans to offer access to 10 million people in 100 different stations. The service is currently free, with usage capped at an hour, though it’s expected to eventually become a paid service.

Not to be outdone, Facebook is looking to get back in the game as well. The BBC reports that the social network has recently kicked off a new trial that will make it easier for people to get online in rural parts of India. The scheme, called Express Wi-fi, streamlines the process through which people buy data allocations from local Internet service providers. Currently, it allows people to use their purchased data bundles through one of 125 rural Wi-Fi hot spots. It may not be free, but at least it won’t anger regulators in the same way as its first scheme did.

Of course, neither company is providing these services selflessly—that much was made clear by Facebook’s initial decision to limit free access to a small number of websites. Instead, both are looking to attract new users in a country containing a relatively untapped market of 1.25 billion people. If Google or Facebook provides your data connection, you’re likely to sign up for its free services, too. The companies can then recoup their investments using their favorite trick of all—advertising.

(Read more: Business Insider, BBCIndia’s Blow Against Facebook Sets Up a Grand Experiment in Net Neutrality,” “Indian Companies Turn Against Facebook’s Scheme for Broader Internet Access”)

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