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Uber to provide free in-car Wi-Fi in India

Woman using Uber app
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In India, a country notorious for city-snarling traffic jams, Uber is hoping free in-car Wi-Fi will lure customers who don't want long transit times to take them offline.

On Friday, Uber, the ride-sharing company, said it had signed a partnership with India's largest mobile carrier, Bharti Airtel, to provide the service. It was the latest in a string of moves by Uber designed to court passengers in India, a huge market that it has identified as critical for growth.

The company said in a news release that Bharti Airtel would operate the Wi-Fi through its new fourth-generation network in all 18 cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, where Uber operates. As part of the deal, Uber is also offering discounted cellphone plans for drivers and accepting payments using Airtel's mobile payment platform.

Although Uber has been expanding rapidly in Asian markets like India and China, it faces many local competitors and has been rolling out special features in each market to compete. In India, the ride-sharing competitor Ola raised $400 million in a recent fund-raising round.

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The new initiative shows some of the difficulties Uber faces in India, where the number of smartphone users is growing, but they often have slow, low-cost phones and frequently turn off mobile data to save money.

"Our ride times in India are some of the longest, compared to ride times across the world. So while you are there in traffic, you can do things that you are not capable of doing, if your phone is not 4G," said Amit Jain, president of Uber India.

This week, Uber said it had raised about $100 million in financing from a private equity firm owned by the Tata Group, the Indian conglomerate, according to a person familiar with the matter. Uber took a similar strategy in China, taking a strategic investment from the Chinese search giant Baidu.

Read MoreWhat's behind Asia's Uber-sized problem?

Uber has said it will spend $1 billion in India, expanding into new cities and attracting new drivers.

To deal with the unusual demands of the Indian market, Uber allows riders to pay with cash, offers cheaper car options and has an S.O.S. button built into the app that connects users directly with local law enforcement officials.

The button is designed to address concerns that arose in the country after one of the company's drivers, who work as independent contractors, was accused of raping a passenger. In response, lawmakers in the Delhi region banned Uber's services. The ban was lifted this summer.