The New York Times
by Vindu Goel
Narendra Nagar, India — On a rooftop at the Shri Kunjapuri temple, located a mile high in the foothills of the Himalayas, a metal tower with five microwave relay dishes pokes a bit further into the sky. It does not look like much, and neither the resident monkeys nor the visiting pilgrims take much notice of it.
But that tower and others like it, parts of a communications network spanning 2,500 square miles of mountainous terrain, are the key to Facebook’s little-known ambition in India: to build a network of cheap Wi-Fi access points that would help residents in remote villages, like those here in the Garhwal region near the Nepalese border, log on to the Internet almost as easily as people do in the West. The dishes relay signals to and from a base station in the valley below, other mountain towers and, ultimately, Internet access points in about 40 villages.
In one of those hamlets, Narendra Nagar, the main street is bathed in high-speed Wi-Fi — a luxury in a country where cellular data networks are generally slow and unreliable.
The wireless Internet service, called Express Wi-Fi, is not free. For 10 rupees, or about 15 cents, customers can buy one day’s access to 100 megabytes of data; $3 will buy 20 gigabytes of data, which can be used over the course of a month. Those prices are roughly one-third the cost of similar prepaid data plans from Airtel, the most reliable cellular operator in the mountains.
Recently, a steady stream of young men stopped by the clothing shop that is the sole vendor of Express Wi-Fi in the village to buy a bit of data and chat with the proprietor, Maken Singh Aswal.
One of Mr. Aswal’s customers, Ujjwal Kohli, a 17-year-old high school student, said he spends about four hours a day on the Internet. He uses Facebook, chats with relatives in New Delhi and plays fighting games. The Express Wi-Fi plan supplemented his Airtel data plan, but he said it had a major drawback. “It only works on one side of the house,” he said, gesturing around the main room of his family’s small home.
That was a common complaint about Express Wi-Fi, which has a single access point in this town of 5,000 people and focuses the signal on the main business strip.
Express Wi-Fi is part of Internet.org, Facebook’s broad plan to bring the Internet to the billions of people around the world who are without it. One of the most prominent initiatives of Internet.org is a package of free basic Internet services that the company is now offering through local cellular carriers in 25 countries, including India.
But improving physical access to the Internet is an important part of Internet.org, too, and India has become a prime testing ground for the company.
Facebook has a clear incentive to provide better Internet in rural India: Everyone stopping at Mr. Aswal’s shop said that Facebook and WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook, were among the apps they used the most. Across India, Facebook already has about 130 million users — only the United States has more users — and wider use will eventually translate to more advertising revenue for the company.
During a tour of Internet.org outposts in the Garhwal region, Munish Seth, who heads Facebook’s connectivity efforts in India, downplayed the commercial implications. “My mission is to connect people,” Mr. Seth said. “We hope they will connect to Facebook, but that’s not the primary mission.” Facebook has no desire to enter directly into the Internet service business. Its expertise is in software and network technology. So Facebook has partnered with an Indian rural Internet access provider, AirJaldi, to manage the actual installation and operation of the Express Wi-Fi service. For AirJaldi, which is based in Dharamsala and mostly provides Internet services to large customers like the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government in exile, the project is a chance to figure out how to make money serving a widely dispersed customer base. “If you want to scale up, you have to present a sustainable economic model,” said Michael Ginguld, AirJaldi’s director of strategy and operations.
Mr. Ginguld estimated that 30,000 people in the region, which has a population of about 200,000, had logged on to the Express Wi-Fi service, with maybe 6,000 of those using it daily. The companies have tested various pricing models, including offering some service for free, but have concluded that charging a consistent, low price is the best approach. Once Facebook and AirJaldi work out all the kinks, they plan to take the service to other parts of the country.
An important cog in the system is the merchant in each village that sells the service. Facebook and AirJaldi decided that there should be just one authorized seller per village to give that person a strong incentive to sell as many subscriptions as possible.
“That’s how connectivity spread in terms of satellite TV in India,” said Chris Daniels, the global head of the Internet.org project. “There was an entrepreneur in every town who had a dish. That’s how landline telephony spread. There was an entrepreneur in every town who had a phone and you could buy minutes of talk time on it. So it’s a model that has proved to work in the past and we’re simply applying that to Internet connectivity.”
A version of this article appears in print on 10/26/2015, on page B4 of the NewYork edition with the headline: On Himalayan Hillsides, WiFi Comes to Hamlets.