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A look inside Facebook's efforts to expand Wi-Fi in developing countries

Key Points
  • To get internet access around the world, Facebook is working with local businesses to create Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • The pay-as-you go Wi-Fi isn't free, but it allows unlimited access to the internet.
  • This one of numerous Facebook projects intended to get internet access to developing countries and remote areas.
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Facebook's mission is to bring the world closer together, including providing internet access in remote areas and developing countries.

One of its projects, called Express Wi-Fi, aims to help local businesses, internet providers and mobile network operators by providing the money and technology to build up internet access in their regions.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced a new program called Express Wi-Fi Certified, which permits selected companies to manufacture Wi-Fi hardware that is compatible with its standards. Arista, Cambium Networks and Ruckus Networks are the first approved firms.

Facebook has had several plans to expand internet access across the globe, including a discontinued plan to build drones tied to a project called Aquila. The company was going to use the large devices to beam internet connectivity to the ground. It also has been recruiting mapping experts to analyze data in order to figure out which areas of the world still need the internet.

Express Wi-Fi started in 2015, and is currently available in five countries: India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania. Facebook provides funding to companies who work on improving the country's Wi-Fi infrastructure. Then, selected businesses agree to host Wi-Fi hotspots, and sell access to the internet through prepaid cards. The offering is similar to buying pay-as-you-go cellphone services, but for the web instead.

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"We started talking to vendors and found a lot of excitement around solving and addressing these problems," said Guy Mordecai, Facebook product lead for Express Wi-Fi. "What got us primarily excited that this is actually great is that a) we could improve the experience b) leverage staff to get involved in markets c) it creates a lot of added value socially and economically."

Fees are low, and users are allowed to access the entire internet through their device and are not limited to Facebook platforms. The company settled on this paid model after noticing people stopped using the service if they were required to go through a registration landing page in order to get access for free.

For example, in Tanzania, Facebook is providing funding to Habari Node to identify which areas have high foot traffic, like mosques, temples, schools and offices. The company then reaches out to nearby entrepreneurs like mom and pop shops that are open to running an additional Wi-Fi business.

The company also has begun exploring partnerships with satellite providers, who would also provide internet access through access points like Express Wi-Fi, Mordecai said. It is also working on "mesh" networks where one Wi-Fi access point talks to another to create broader areas of internet access. Tanzania is the first test area, with more regions to be announced. The information from the Aquila project is also being used to develop a high altitude platform station (HAPS) system to also provide Wi-Fi in these regions.

Though Facebook intends the internet access projects to have a "humanitarian" focus, it hasn't always been positively received. An early effort called Internet.org only provided free limited access to the internet on mobile phones in developing countries, including Facebook-owned services. Advocacy groups complained that restricting what people can do online "violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation."