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Interview with Munish Seth, Regional Head, APAC, Facebook Connectivity Solutions

July 13, 2017

Interview with Munish Seth, Regional Hea...


In recent years, the underserved rural and remote Indian markets have shown a growing appetite for data services. To this end, social media firm Facebook launched its Express Wi-Fi programme in India in May 2017, to provide affordable internet connectivity in these areas. The company is leveraging the expertise of various telecom operators, internet service providers (ISPs) and local entrepreneurs to expand the programme’s footprint across the country. In an interview with tele.net, Munish Seth, regional head, APAC, Facebook Connectivity Solutions, spoke about the key highlights of the Express Wi-Fi programme, the opportunities emerging from the government’s Digital India initiative and the company’s focus areas for the Indian market…

What are your views regarding the current status of broadband adoption in the country?

The telecom industry has done a tremendous job in building infrastructure to connect people. Most of the country today has voice connectivity. The need now is to bring more Indians online. As per independent research estimates, India would achieve less than 30 per cent internet penetration by June 2017. Of these online users, 60 per cent will come from urban India and 15 per cent from rural India. This means that more than 700 million people, mostly from rural India, will remain unconnected. Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected, and we are working to help overcome the barriers of infrastructure in a scalable and sustainable manner. We recognise that there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to providing connectivity. We are working on a “building block” approach that looks at multiple solutions to tackle the challenge. One example of this is the Express Wi-Fi programme under which we are investing to enable people to connect, helping entrepreneurs and eliminating barriers to connectivity.

What are the key highlights of the Express Wi-Fi programme?

Today, if you want to connect to the internet in India, there are two ways – over a cellular network or over Wi-Fi. When it comes to data, cellular plans can often be expensive. Wi-Fi is a great option. But it can be hard to set up, expensive to deploy in remote areas and the business model is not clear. We are working to change that with Express Wi-Fi.

First, we have built a new technology that enables Wi-Fi to function as a connectivity solution. We are working with local ISPs and cellular operators, and are helping local entrepreneurs to connect their local communities. Express Wi-Fi provides these entrepreneurs the tools and the technology to sell Wi-Fi connectivity to towns/villages in an economically sustainable way. We have focused on building a sustainable economic model for all stakeholders involved so that local retail entrepreneurs, ISPs, operators and Facebook can continue to invest. We believe a sustainable economic model is the one that can bring all of the country online. Express Wi-Fi is currently live in five countries – India, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia.

What role are Indian telecom operators playing in the implementation of the programme? Who are the other business partners in the telecom chain that you are collaborating with?

Today, the programme is live with over 500 local retail entrepreneurs and Wi-Fi services are commercially available through nearly 700 hotspots in partnership with ISPs such as AirJaldi in Uttarakhand, LMES in Rajasthan, Tikona in Gujarat and Shaildhar in Meghalaya. All these partners are rapidly expanding the footprint and reach of the service.

Express Wi-Fi is designed to complement mobile data offerings by providing a low-cost, high bandwidth alternative for getting online, accessing applications, and downloading and streaming content.

We have recently partnered with Bharti Airtel for the launch of 20,000 Express Wi-Fi hotspots across India. We have also entered into an MoU with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). This agreement will enable Facebook’s Indian ISP partners to benefit from the vast reach of the BSNL network to help provide fast, reliable and affordable Wi-Fi services.

What opportunities does the Digital India initiative present for Facebook? How does the company plan to leverage these?

In India, we have close to 700 million people who are not connected. The Digital India initiative presents a unique opportunity to get India online and spur local economic development. Facebook is a technology company. We build applications and services that help people connect and communicate with each other. We have launched a series of new long-term technology initiatives with the goal of developing breakthrough technologies over the course of the next 10 years that will provide the opportunity for more people to connect in new ways. As part of this 10-year plan, we are exploring radical new approaches to bring connectivity to the 4.1 billion people in the world who are not connected. Connecting more than half the world is a big challenge. We are focused on two key strategies – investing in partnerships and taking a “building block” approach. We know that collaboration can help us increase the pace of innovation and that is why we are partnering closely with ISPs, telecom operators and others in our effort to connect the world. We also recognise that no one solution will help connect 4.1 billion people, which is why we are focused on developing programmes and next-generation technologies that can help bring the cost of connectivity down, to reach the unconnected and increase capacity and performance for the underserved.

What are the key challenges that you have faced in the Indian market?

India is the second largest country for Facebook, with over 180 million active people monthly. The key challenge with us was to make Wi-Fi connectivity scalable and cost effective and, therefore, we are working on the cost aspect of the network by partnering with original equipment manufacturers. We are excited at the prospect of expanding Express Wi-Fi across India to provide fast, affordable and reliable internet connectivity to millions of under/unconnected users in India.

What are your views on the prevailing policy and regulatory landscape in the Indian telecom sector? What is your regulatory wish list?

India is a highly regulated market and the regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), and the licensor, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), can play a key part in catalysing a sustainable connectivity landscape. We are happy to see some forward-looking recommendations from TRAI on the issue of Wi-Fi. The recommendation of no licence requirement for building Wi-Fi networks and providing services will unburden the ecosystem from regulatory processes. This is likely to lead to faster deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots in India. Currently, the country severely lags in terms of hotspot deployments, with only around 35,000 hotspots as compared to 10 million in the US and 11 million in France.

There are also recommendations on removing the existing restrictions on large parts of the Wi-Fi spectrum for outdoor use. We hope that DoT will soon accept these recommendations. Another area where TRAI/DoT can help is by opening the V (60 GHz) and E (80 GHz) spectrum bands. In most technologically developed countries, V band spectrum is completely delicensed/free to use by the public and it reduces the time and cost of providing high speed internet connectivity to dense urban areas. Similarly, E-band can provide backhaul connectivity in rural areas. Unlicensed backhaul spectrum will help connect Wi-Fi hotspots with the nearest optic fibre cable point in a most cost-effective manner.

What will be the key focus areas for Facebook in India in the coming years?

Facebook is an important part of everyday life for people in India. There are over 180 million people and 2 million small businesses on Facebook in  the country. That means more than half of the people on the internet in the country are on Facebook.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the benefits of connectivity are realised by everyone and everywhere across the country. Connectivity gives people an unprecedented voice and helps them share things with people that matter the most to them. In a country that is fast coming online, we are helping people with the basic skills they require to connect and stay safe online through our digital literacy and safety education programmes.

What is your outlook for the Indian telecom sector for the next two to three years?

The telecom sector is going through a price discovery process. The consumption pattern indicates a demand for internet usage, as long as it is affordable and reliable.


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