The growth of internet penetration and the realisation of its complete potential is closely linked to the proliferation of broadband services. One of the critical components for the proliferation of broadband services in India has been the setting up of public Wi-Fi hotspots. How­ever, nearly five years after the government started emphasising on public Wi-Fi services, the uptake has been far from flattering.

A missed opportunity

India missed its public Wi-Fi hotspots roll-out target by a mile. The target outlined by the National Digital Communi­ca­tions Policy, 2018, stood at 10 million hotspots to be established by the end of 2022. However, the deployment count is still at a mere 0.5 million. Industry experts also state that at this rate, India is highly likely to miss its more ambitious goal of de­ploying 50 million public Wi-Fi hot­spots by 2030, as was set out in the latest Bharat 6G Vision document.

Earlier, after the launch of the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) framework, government officials asserted that the programme will boost the country’s digital infrastructure in rural areas and increase broadband access for a wider audience. The PM-WANI scheme ai­med at deploying Wi-Fi hotspots across the country to drive up connectivity alternatives and enhance digital access.

Under the PM-WANI framework, telecom operators or internet service providers (ISPs) charge public data offices (PDOs) and public data office aggregators (PDOAs), key unlicensed entities tasked with buying bulk internet bandwidth and providing public Wi-Fi services to end us­ers. However, one of the major reasons be­hind the failure of the deployment was the ex­orbitant internet leased line charges, ranging from Rs 400,000 to Rs 800,000. Telcos defended this by stating that their priority was to use their bandwidth and fibre resources optimally to deliver quality broadband connectivity to their own customers at affordable rates, before considering price cuts for other entities offering public Wi-Fi services.

Risks associated with public Wi-Fi services

Another issue hampering the widespread uptake of public Wi-Fi services in India has been the tremendous amount of cyber risk it poses as a network. Some of the most common threats linked to public Wi-Fi services include the following.

Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks

MITM attacks are essentially a form of eavesdropping. In this, the computer ma­kes the connection to the internet and data is mined from a device to a different service or website. This, in turn, allows the attacker to target vulnerabilities and interfere in these transmissions, making perso­nal data more accessible to outside parties. Phishing emails are also a source of MITM attacks that are commonly carried out by scammers.

Unencrypted networks

While using an encrypted network, the information sent between the recipient device and the Wi-Fi router is in a “secret code”, which makes all messages encrypted. Most Wi-Fi routers have encryption turned off by default and require it to be turned on when setting up the network. While the public Wi-Fi network might be encrypted, there is no way of ensuring that this has not already happened.

Malware distribution

Owing to the software vulnerabilities, the­re are numerous ways in which attackers can slip malware into the device unnoti­c­ed. A software vulnerability usually refers to a loophole in security or weakness fou­nd in an operating system or software program. Hackers can exploit this weakness by writing codes targeting each vulnerability specifically and then injecting malware into the device.

Wi-Fi snooping and sniffing

Under this, cybercriminals purchase special software kits and even devices, which assist them in eavesdropping on Wi-Fi signals. This allows attackers to access everything that a person is doing online – from viewing all the web pages they visited in the past to being able to capture the person’s login credentials.

Malicious hotspots

Rogue access points, also known as malicious hotspots, trick their victims into logging in to what might seem like a legitimate network. For example, while logging into a public Wi-Fi network, the user might log into another network by a similar name. These rogue hotspots are set up by cybercriminals who can then access and view all the personal information.

Ongoing deployment initiatives

Despite the noise surrounding safety concerns associated with public Wi-Fi hots­pots, it is still considered a primary way for reaching a bigger audience. Conside­ring this benefit, different state governments ha­ve launched public Wi-Fi initiatives to im­prove their digital infrastructure. For in­stance, the Uttar Pradesh government ma­de a pledge to deploy public Wi-Fi services in 217 cities under the PM-WANI programme, which would also include 17 municipal cities. Most of these cities have already been covered, including the likes of Jhansi, Agra, Lucknow and Meerut.

Meanwhile, Hyderabad has set up over 3,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots, which provide users free internet access for 45 minutes daily at 25 Mbps speed and a limit of 1 GB. Over 400 government schools, basti dawakhanas, hospitals, public libraries, shopping malls and 47 metro railway stations across the city are covered by the hotspot set up under the Hy-Fi project of the state government, in collaboration with ACT Fibernet. The Kerala government has also awarded a contract to Bharat San­ch­ar Nigam Limited (BSNL) for the deployment of 2,000 public Wi-Fi hots­pots. The project is currently valued at Rs 500 million. The initiative was taken up in response to the state government’s estimation that the current public Wi-Fi infrastructure receives more than 44,000 uni­que users each day, who use 8 TB of data.

Apart from state governments, RailTel has also launched PM-WAN-based access to its public Wi-Fi services across 100 railway stations. RailTel also awarded 3i Infotech with a multiyear contract to create a media platform that has a measurable and physical footprint across the country. The Wi-Fi monetisation project would cover rural India. The project is expected to reach 200 million customers and will cover over 6,100 railway stations across the country. The contract states that 3i Infotech-led consortium will pay Rs 140 million per year, or 40 per cent of the revenue earned (whichever is higher) to RailTel. The revenue will be largely led by advertising and supported by content/services-based revenue, while the consolidated revenue from the project is estimated to be upwards of Rs 2.5 billion over a five-year period.

The future of public Wi-Fi in India

India is one of the most data-hungry countries in the world. Today, users across rural India are also contributing to the demand for these services by consuming more and more digital content. In this regard, the ongoing public Wi-Fi expansion initiatives being undertaken across the country are expected to pick up pace in the coming years. Further, the deployment of 5G services will play a key role in the expansion of public Wi-Fi services. As per the Ericsson Mobility Report 2021, 5G is expected to shoot data consumption to almost 40 GB per user per month by 2026. In this regard, increasing public Wi-Fi hotspots would lead to more Wi-Fi usage and will create enormous data traffic to be carried by telcos, generating substantial revenues for them.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done in the field to ensure security for public Wi-Fi services. Net, net, stakeholders across the public Wi-Fi do­main need to focus not only on improving public Wi-Fi infrastructure but also on en­suring network security to improve the adoption rate of these services and meet the targets set by the government.