The Indian government has finally approved a new infrastructure scheme that could result in millions – or perhaps tens of millions – of public ‘grassroots’ Wi-Fi hotspots being deployed all over the country. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called the decision ‘historic’. Our reporter on the ground in India has more.
By Gagandeep Kaur, Wi-Fi NOW contributor, New Delhi
The Indian Government last week approved the much-anticipated PM Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) scheme, which will result in Wi-Fi hotspots being set up across the country, probably in large numbers.
India only has about 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in the entire country at this time, which is a remarkably low number for a population of more than 1.3 billion. The Indian government believes that the new WANI initiative will play a crucial role in addressing the digital divide and advancing the vision for a Digital India. The WANI scheme has been in the pipeline for the last four to five years and was a one point considered defunct – but has now finally been approved.
“It is expected that with Public Wi-Fi Broadband, the user experience and quality of service for broadband will be improved significantly. This service will be especially useful in rural areas where public Wi-Fi hotspots are also being created under BharatNet,” says a press note issued by India’s Ministry of Communications. BharatNet is an initiative to connect all the Gram Panchayats (village councils) in the country.
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“This [WANI ] is a vital measure for enabling unlicensed entities to deliver Wi-Fi services at the grassroots level, which will help boost broadband proliferation across the nation significantly, converting the people into digital citizens. At the same time, this will also lead to explosive growth in business and employment opportunities for small local or village-level entrepreneurs, the kirana [grocery] stores, tea-shops, etc., especially in rural areas; thereby propelling socio-economic development and inclusion, as well as rural digital connectivity,” says TV Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum.
The new scheme could become a sizeable business opportunity for example for small entrepreneurs, cafes, and local businesses operating the Wi-Fi hotspots. They will be able to offer a bite-sized broadband subscriptions, which will make data services available to a much greater number of people. Wi-Fi technology vendors also stand to benefit.
How will it work?
The public WiFi network will be set up by the Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOAs), who will provide Wi-Fi service through Public Data Offices (PDOs). A PDO – for example run by a small business – will establish and operate the Wi-Fi service and deliver broadband services to the public. On the other hand, PDOA will aggregator the PDOs and take care of accounting and administration. An app will be developed to register users, and help users discover WANI hotspots in the vicinity.
“Proliferation of Public Wi-Fi Hotspots will lead to increased employment for small and micro-entrepreneurs, and provide them with an additional source of income. The telecom and internet service providers will also benefit due to the sale of bandwidth to PDOs,” says the press note issued by the Ministry of Communications.
As per the Indian government’s press release, the last mile public Wi-Fi providers will not require any license or registration. Essentially, they will not be required to make any payment to the Department of Telecommunications. Licensing issues were previously an issue of legal contention for the establishment of project itself but such roadblocks have now finally been removed.
“While delivery of broadband is possible through different media and technologies, under the WANI framework, it is envisaged that last mile broadband connectivity, where the consumer accesses broadband services, will be through a network of public Wi-Fi access points. The backhaul requirement for these Wi-Fi access points will be met by procuring Internet bandwidth from the telecom service providers/internet service providers,” says the framework issued by the government for Wi-Fi registration.
Inspired by the PCO Model
The WANI model is similar to the Public Call Office (PCO) model, which unleashed a telecom revolution in India in the 1990s. India had a very low base of installed landlines in the 1980s. The cost of a long-distance calls was also exorbitant. The Government came up with a PCO scheme, which led to the proliferation of STD (phone) booths across the country. At one time there were 1.2 million STD/ISD (phone) booths in the country employing more than one million people.
Now the government hopes to replicate the success of the PCO model with the WANI scheme. The government has previously set the goal of having 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots as part of National Digital Communications Policy 2018. However, according to industry estimates, there are just a little over 300,000 hotspots in the country.
Challenges and opportunities
The scheme’s key threat is the growing 4G coverage across the country. Private telcos – including Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea – are continuously working to expand and improve their 4G coverage. This – along with the availability of cheap data and economically-priced smartphones – means that demand for public Wi-Fi could be limited in urban areas.
“The availability of high-speed and low-cost 4G is very high now, especially in urban areas and tier-2 cities. I see limited relevance of public Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas,” says Ashwinder Sethi, Principal at Analysys Mason.
Careful selection of the locations would be critical for the success of Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas. Only the areas where the 4G coverage is unable to cope with the data demand will ensure the viability of the Wi-Fi hotspots. On the other hand, it might need to be complemented with value-added services in rural areas.
While the last few years have witnessed a consistent rise in the number of Internet users in the country, nearly half of the country’s population has yet to be connected. In 2020, India had almost 700 million internet users, and the number is likely to reach 974 million by 2025.
The growing data consumption points to a latent demand for internet connectivity. India has one of the highest data usages per smartphone per month, which will grow as more subscribers join the network. This is especially true in the post-COVID-19 world where remote learning and working from home have become the norm. In this context, the WANI scheme could play a crucial role in connecting the unconnected and bridging the digital divide.
In September Wi-Fi NOW conducting this Special Event on 6 GHz Wi-Fi for India. Watch the replay for all the details on how future 6 GHz Wi-Fi will impact connectivity in India.