Exclusive: Facebook Kills Free Global WiFi Project, Led by Israeli Team

Social media giant Meta is closing down its Express Wi-Fi project, which had been a major part of Facebook's operations in its Israel R&D center

Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen
A cobbler looks at his phone as he wait for customers outside a closed market area during a weekend lockdown in central Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.
A cobbler looks at his phone as he wait for customers outside a closed market area during a weekend lockdown in central Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Credit: Dar Yasin /AP
Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen

Meta Platforms, the company that was called Facebook and still widely known by that name, is shutting down a project intended to provide wireless internet to developing countries at a low cost, Haaretz has learned.

The project, known as Express Wi-Fi, was being led by a team at its Israeli research and development center. In recent days, Meta has notified its partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America of the move.

Express Wi-Fi was launched in 2016 as part of its Facebook Connectivity unit, a group of global internet connectivity initiatives. Express Wi-Fi’s goal was to link populations in developing countries by offering a platform for low-cost public wireless internet that local internet, cellular and satellite communications operators could offer their customers. By connecting new people to the internet, the social media giant could increase its user base.

The service was operating in, among other places, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Uganda, Thailand, Argentina and South Africa.

The Israeli team working on Express Wi-Fi is expected to be shifted to other duties inside the company, sources said.

“Together with our partners, we helped to expand public access to wi-fi to people in more than 30 countries through the Express Wi-Fi platform. While we are ending our work on this program to focus on other projects, we remain committed to working with our partners in the telecom industry to provide better connectivity,” Meta said in a statement.

Meta’s Israel R&D center employs more than 700 people and one of its biggest teams was working on Express Wi-Fi. It was a division of the global Connectivity group along with another locally developed undertaking known as Free Basics, an app and website that provides access to basic services like news, weather and health information in developing countries free of data charges.

Drones and balloons

The Israeli R&D center is run jointly by Tzach Hadar, Amit Finkelstein and Limor Zellermayer, of whom the latter was in charge of Express Wi-Fi.

In F2F, a podcast by the Israeli R&D center aired in June 2020, Zellermayer described Express Wi-Fi’s work.

“This isn’t an undertaking in which Facebook is increasingly connecting localities or towns in remote locations itself. We are seeking to embrace the industry, develop groundbreaking technologies that we can offer the industry and our partners, and help the industry move forward. The balloons and drones are Facebook’s sexiest projects on Facebook and have made headlines, but in real life things are more complicated,” he said

The balloons and drones comment refers to the attempt to use such vehicles to expand wi-fi coverage.

Mark Zuckerberg holds a propeller pod of the solar-powered drone that it hopes will help it extend internet connectivity to every corner of the planet.Credit: STEPHEN LAM/ REUTERS/ סטפן

“Wi-fi networks offer more possibilities for improving connectivity in more places. Erecting a cellular tower is expensive and requires regulatory and approvals and licenses. Setting up a wi-fi network is a simpler matter both from a bureaucratic and cost perspective. Deploying a wi-fi network is easier for operators. In addition, the countries we are approaching have cell phones that don’t always support advanced 3-G or 4-G technology. Wi-fi is a technology that most phones in the world support. That way you can reach communities that you otherwise couldn’t reach.

“There are other opportunities – wi-fi networks that were set up in the past but never put into operation. They can be revived – you only need a business mechanism and motivation for there to be an operator to do it.”

This isn’t the first time that the giant U.S. company has closed down a major undertaking in Israel. Onavo, an Israeli virtual private network application acquired by Facebook in 2013 that continued to be developed in the country, was shut in 2019 after it was revealed that it had been collecting information about the time its users spent on apps, which websites they visited and other data.

In addition, Israel is also home to teams belonging to Meta’s worldwide Growth group, which is leading the development of Facebook- and internet-lite applications – simpler, pared-down versions of social networks that can be handled by simpler smartphones.

Another team in Israel belongs to the Shops on Facebook division, the company’s online retailing arm; Reality Labs, which is developing Virtual and augmented-reality technologies; and Novi, a wallet for cryptocurrencies; and others engaged in artificial intelligence research.

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