Facebook announced the commercial launch of its Express Wi-Fi service in India, and plans to deploy an additional 20,000 hotspots across the country in partnership with Bharti Airtel.

In a statement, the social media giant said it was working with internet service providers and more than 500 entrepreneur retailers, with the service now commercially available through nearly 700 hotspots across four states. The company added it will deploy the additional 20,000 hotspots with Airtel over the next few months.

Facebook began trialling the service with state-owned operator BSNL in 2015, and subsequently acquired bandwidth for the initiative from the operator in January 2016. However, there was no mention of BSNL’s future role in Facebook’s statement. Mobile World Live contacted both companies seeking clarification.

In August 2016, Facebook held talks with ISPs regarding expanding coverage of the service, which aims to provide more affordable internet services to the country.

Express Wi-Fi is currently available in four other countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia, and falls under the company’s internet.org umbrella.

Ajai Puri, COO for India and South Asia at Bharti Airtel, said the company was “delighted” to be part of the initiative, in what he described as an “under served segment”.

Digital India vision
Facebook cited figures from India’s regulator indicating only 390 million in the country are connected to the internet, despite having a population of 1.3 billion.

“We believe this will help in empowering millions of Indians by bringing them online and contribute to the government’s Digital India vision,” said Puri.

Facebook explained Express Wi-Fi was designed to complement mobile data offerings by providing a low cost, high bandwidth alternative for getting online, and also helps local entrepreneurs to start businesses.

“Our goal is to grow the number of Express Wi-Fi hotspots in India rapidly,” Facebook added.

The commercial launch of Express Wi-Fi follows a series of setbacks for Facebook in India, after it introduced its Free Basics service.

Telecoms regulator TRAI ruled against differential data pricing in February 2016, after the service faced a backlash from opponents arguing against the zero rated initiative.