When it comes to connecting India’s population to the internet, Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai is having better luck than his Facebook Inc. counterpart, Mark Zuckerberg.
Google began offering free Wi-Fi at about two dozen train stations in the country earlier this year, and now has 2 million people using the service each month, Pichai said in a recent earnings call. Millions more will gain access as the service expands to 100 locations by the year end. The search provider’s goal is to reach 400 stations.
Facebook had also sought last year to get people online by covering the cost for mobile users to connect to select websites and services on their phones. That effort, called Free Basics, was blocked in February by India’s telecom regulator. The ban was a setback for Zuckerberg, who had visited India to promote the program, which was designed for people who can’t afford expensive mobile-data charges.
Google, Facebook and other providers of web services are all flocking to India to amass their next billion users and get them to adopt their products first. By targeting train stations and offering unfettered access, Google has been able to leap ahead. Both are seeking to maximize eyeballs for their revenue-generating ads in the country of 1.3 billion, according to C.S. Rao, chairman of QuadGen Wireless Solutions Inc., 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.
Facebook said it will keep looking for ways to deliver cheaper internet access. It is now testing a service, called Express Wi-Fi, that will let people buy affordable data packs via digital vouchers and access Wi-Fi networks. "The goal of these trials is to find an economically sustainable model for all stakeholders," Facebook said in a statement.
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About a third of India’s population has internet access, with an estimated 462 million in June, according to a IAMAI report. The country ranked 131st out of 189 countries in broadband penetration, and has the lowest average connection speed in Asia, according to Akamai Technologies Inc. While Google isn’t targeting those using its Wi-Fi with advertising, it’s aiming to get more people online and betting that they will use the company’s services and see more ads.
“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. Providers need to focus on delivering full internet access, he said. “If we don’t address it, a few generations of Indians will feel left behind.”
There are also other initiatives aimed at getting people onto the web. Microsoft Corp. has a project called TV White Spaces, which seeks to provide low-cost broadband connections via unused TV spectrum. Google has sought permission to launch Project Loon, a network of floating balloons to provide internet services to remote and rural areas.