T.V. Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum, and Honorary Fellow of IET (London)

It is now globally acknowledged that internet access is no longer a luxury but an absolute necessity, much like other essential services such as electricity and water. The global digital divide is a gigantic gap that desperately needs to be plugged for greater equality and overall inclusion. Today, nearly half the world (almost 60-65 per cent of India, over 60 per cent of Africa and over 30 per cent of South and Central America) need access to the internet in order to enhance the social and economic well-being of the people.

Public Wi-Fi has emerged as one of, if not the most, potent means of providing widespread digital connectivity for the masses. As per the CISCO Virtual Network Index Study, it is expected that 59 per cent of mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2022, globally. The Wi-Fi Alliance estimates more than 450 million households worldwide to be connected by Wi-Fi. Moreover, 53 per cent of global internet traffic is expected to be serviced by Wi-Fi by 2022 as compared to 20 per cent and 27 per cent by cellular and wired networks respectively (as per Ruckus Networks), while cumulative shipments of Wi-Fi devices are set to touch 30 billion by that time. The fact that emerges here is – while cellular data usage on smartphones is growing, Wi-Fi data growth is dramatically outpacing it.

India, though, has a long way to go in terms of public Wi-Fi proliferation. When it comes to digital connectivity, compared to other advanced nations, the second largest telecom market in the world is outpaced by almost 200 times in terms of number of public Wi-Fi hotspots.

The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 has underlined the importance of public Wi-Fi as being key to achieving the Digital India goals, and envisages the development of 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022, which would unleash innumerable benefits for all stakeholders in the ecosystem – most importantly, for consumers.

High capacity ubiquitous Wi-Fi is all the more important for India when it comes to handling mobile data offloading (MDO) on par with advanced countries in order to increase efficiency and quality of services, and for optimal use of scarce spectrum resources. As it is, India’s mobile broadband speeds barely go up to 30 per cent of the global speeds, and need an overhaul in terms of quality to serve the growing needs of consumers better. Smart manufacturing, based on exploiting Wi-Fi technology, would also be able to provide considerable impetus to Industry 4.0. Moreover, with rapidly increasing business functions, as well as residential consumption of data services owing to work from home, public Wi-Fi would be a practical solution that can cater to the rising demand for enterprise functions as well as the increased spread of fibre-to-the-x services. Besides, a fledgling public Wi-Fi ecosystem would also unleash a plethora of economic activities such as MDO, proliferation of Wi-Fi devices, effective use of agri-tech, financial inclusion via schemes such as direct benefit transfer, and location-based advertising, eventually resulting in substantial benefits for the nation.

The introduction of the PM Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) Policy is a potential gamechanger for the public Wi-Fi scenario in India, as it offers a better quality of experience to users via a ubiquitous network of public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the country. Moreover, the WANI architecture enables seamless pan-Indian Wi-Fi roaming for users, without the hassles of repeated know your customer procedures or authentication. As PM-WANI envisages the delivery of Wi-Fi services via public data offices (PDOs), public data office aggregators (PDOAs) and app providers, it could lead to an explosive growth in business and employment opportunities for small local entrepreneurs, kirana stores, tea shops, etc., especially in rural areas, with the potential to generate 20-30 million job opportunities in the small- and medium-scale sectors, even by conservative estimates. Moreover, at the PDO, PDOA and app provider levels, this is likely to encourage large-scale entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as help attract a large number of investments to the sector.

PM-WANI also presents a great opportunity to the local manufacturing and supply chain sectors for producing indigenous Wi-Fi equipment for millions of Wi-Fi hotspots, which could boost the Atmanirbhar Bharat mission of the government, besides leading to more job creation.

Moreover, while mobile is the mainstay broadband technology being used today, the fact is that data tariffs have risen to the tune of 30-40 per cent in recent times, and a further 30-40 per cent hike is expected in the near future – essentially to ensure sustainability of operations for the sector. The demand for floor tariffs on data services from concerned players would also lead to a further increase in the cost differential. Wi-Fi hotspots would, therefore, be a more economical option for the common man.

Looking ahead, the next generation of Wi-Fi – Wi-Fi 6/6E – is expected to arrive soon. It will help deliver extremely high capacity, high speed, and highly secure broadband services to consumers while offering better spectrum efficiency. Wi-Fi 6 is expected to complement 5G technology as it has similar features (high throughput and low latency); and with lower entry barriers, would be useful for rural areas and enterprise networks. Since the development of 10 million public data creation centres will generate/consume huge amounts of data, it will accentuate the demand for additional spectrum. In this regard, unlicensed spectrum in the 6 GHz and V bands, besides other bands, would help boost the delivery of quality broadband connectivity via the millions of public Wi-Fi hotspots that India so desperately needs.

The Federal Communications Commission in the US released 1200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz (5.925 GHz-7.125 GHz) band for delicensed use last year, which turned out to be a landmark move, followed by the European Union, Brazil, Chile, South Korea and several other regimes, most recently Saudi Arabia. This move will usher in technologies such as Wi-Fi 6, which is likely to play a major role in the growth of the internet of things. In India, opening the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use will also increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi by nearly 5x and help improve rural broadband connectivity, besides enabling mobile operators to offload traffic inside residential buildings, thereby improving the quality of service and speeds from the mobile network. With room for seven new 160 MHz channels, the 6 GHz band could potentially serve as a multilane superhighway for the latest Wi-Fi devices, while enabling many crucial use cases such as digital healthcare, telemedicine and Industry 4.0.

Delicensing of the V band (57-71 GHz), as recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in 2014-15, is also a necessary measure to facilitate the widespread proliferation of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the country. Owing to its unique propagation characteristics, this band is well suited for high capacity, low and short coverage applications, and mitigates interference significantly, making it ideal for delivering high gigabit capacity and high speed broadband via delicensed use in Wi-Fi. Besides, it would encourage a spate of innovations such as use of short range devices, while also providing significant impetus to the PM-WANI and Atmanirbhar Bharat missions of the government.

Broadband proliferation in India can happen through the enhancement of coverage, capacity and speed, and with the development of more user-friendly apps and relevant content in local/vernacular languages. Enhancement of coverage can be done through a mix of middle-mile and last-mile access. While middle-mile/backhaul access can be provided using fibre, towers, E and V bands and satcom, last-mile access (both wireline and wireless) can be provided using a mix of fibre, fixed wireless, satcom, cable, etc. Capacity and speed can be enhanced through additional spectrum availability and fibre deployments (both access and backhaul), additional deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots and MDO.

India, appropriately, has tall digital aspirations. Ubiquitous public Wi-Fi is absolutely essential for attaining these goals. All stakeholders must come together to expeditiously implement the historic government policies of liberalised Wi-Fi and PM-WANI. s

Note: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author.