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Facebook takes on telcos with low-cost Internet in Nairobi

US tech giant Facebook has switched on its low-cost Internet in Nairobi, stepping up competition for telecommunication firms which earn significant revenue from users of the social networking site.

‘Express Wifi’ by Facebook, which is a joint project with Surf, a local Internet service provider, went live in Nairobi and its environs about three weeks ago after previous launches in Uganda, Nigeria and India.

The service is currently available in Thika, Ong’ata Rongai, Mlolongo, Limuru, Kitengela and Kiambu.

Facebook’s Express Wifi is similar to the Google balloon powered Internet (Project Loon) intended to take the Internet rural, remote areas.

The Express Wifi has a 10-day offer where users access 100MBs free daily package after which they are required to top up through recharge agents recruited in areas where it is available.

Daily Internet bundles cost Sh10 for 40 megabyte (mb) and Sh20 for 100mb while weekly Express Wifi bundles cost Sh50 for 300mbs and Sh100 for 500mb.

Monthly bundles cost Sh200 for 1.25 gigabyte (gb) and Sh500 for 3gb. Surf Kenya CEO Mark Summer said in an interview the prices could change after official launch of the service.

Safaricom offers daily Internet bundles at Sh50 for 65mbs while Airtel and Orange offers 50mbs and 400mbs for the same amount, respectively.

“With Express Wifi, we’re working with carriers, Internet service providers, and local entrepreneurs to help expand connectivity to underserved locations around the world,” said Facebook’s Internet.org in a statement.

“Express Wifi empowers local entrepreneurs to help provide quality Internet access to their neighbours and make a steady income. Working with local Internet service providers or mobile operators, they’re able to use software provided by Facebook to connect their communities.”

The tech giant says that they are using Internet access to drive economic opportunities and enable the free exchange of data and information, by ensuring that it is available, affordable, and allows usage that promotes positive social and economic outcomes.

Kenya ranks poorly in the affordability measure of The Inclusive Internet: Mapping Progress. On Average, the study carried out in 75 countries says that while 94 per cent of people live within range of a mobile signal, only 43 per cent have access to a 4G signal. People are therefore using the Internet less than they would if it was cheaper and faster.

“When people are able to purchase fast, affordable and reliable Internet, they’re able to explore the range of information it has to offer including news, education, health, job postings, entertainment, and communication tools like Facebook.”

The entry of Facebook’s Express Wifi in Kenya is likely to be met with a lot of opposition especially after the criticism the firm suffered in India last year prompting the country to block the service.

While the Express Wifi service, unlike Free Basics comes at a cost, its pricing model undercuts other key players in the market and this may ignite fresh price wars with key players locally.

India on the basis of Internet neutrality issue– which implies that Internet service providers should not create different pricing policies to favour those who can afford or discriminate against those who cannot– blocked free access to Facebook early last year.

ICT secretary Joe Mucheru in a past interview regarding India’s move said that the government would not stop access to Facebook for those who cannot afford just because someone else cannot provide the same service.

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