Even as Facebook’s Free Basics platform claims to connect India’s villages by giving them free but limited Internet, a grassroots initiative aims to provide unrestricted Internet access for free. Four young IT engineers have started a free Wi-Fi service in a village in their home district Rajgarh in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Inspired by the Indian government’s Digital India initiative, the four friends began working on introducing Wi-Fi in Shivnathpura village in August 2015. Without any financial help from the local government or private organisations, they pooled their resources to set up a 80-foot-high tower with a high-frequency device. Since the village faced long power cuts, they also set up an inverter to ensure uninterrupted Internet access.
The service was finally started in October and extended to the gram panchayat (village council) Bawdikheda jagir by November. It was officially launched in January.
Shakeel Anjum, Tushar Bharthare, Bhanu Yadav and Abhishek Bharthare are all in their 20s, and have now left their jobs to focus on their dream of getting Wi-Fi across their district, and eventually other parts of the state and country. The project has cost them Rs 200,000 ($300) so far, but they say the impact has been immediate.
“After the introduction of Wi-Fi, numerous villagers have bought smartphones. School children use apps and e-books to help their studies,” says Anjum. “A Bank of India kiosk in the village can now work much more efficiently in opening new bank accounts because of uninterrupted Internet service.” The four tied up with a local NGO called Rajgarh Computer Seva Sanstha to teach the villagers how they could use the Internet.
The four are currently bearing monthly expenses amounting to Rs 8,000 ($120) for the Wi-Fi, but are looking for help from the local government. They also plan to extend low-cost Wi-Fi to surrounding villages within a 15 km-radius through the same tower.
Facebook isn’t the only tech giant with plans for India. This year, Google plans to set up free Wi-Fi in 100 railway stations and bring low-cost Internet connectivity to country’s villages through Project Loon.
When asked about Facebook’s Free Basics platform, Anjum adds that initiatives like his are important for net neutrality. “A tie-up between telecom operators and a large corporation is a business method,” he says. “Internet users should have the freedom to access everything.”