The exponential increase in India’s appetite for data consumption has played an instrumental role in bringing Wi-Fi services to the fore. Today, Wi-Fi is being seen as a technology that can help in driving internet uptake, especially in rural areas. To this end, the government’s ambitious BharatNet programme has been leveraging Wi-Fi to extend last-mile connectivity across gram panchayats (GPs). However, challenges such as poor resource availability, delays in survey and site selection, inadequate power supply, dearth of trained manpower for maintenance, and lack of Wi-Fi equipment, space and security at GPs remain the key deterrents in the mass uptake of these services.

Need for Wi-Fi connectivity

Often, network availability offered by telecom service providers in rural and remote areas is poor and has reliability issues. In such a scenario, Wi-Fi services can be used by service providers to fulfil connectivity requirements. Going forward, Wi-Fi technology can play a critical role in delivering connectivity, as institutions such as public health centres, common service centres, post offices and schools get connected under several government projects.

Delivery models

Selecting the right model is critical for Wi-Fi deployment. Some models are mentioned below:

  • Revenue sharing model: It requires no upfront payment and is linked to customer delivery. Capex and opex under the model are incurred by the respective partners. However, the challenges in this model are slow progress and unwillingness of the partner to undertake huge investments. Moreover, development is restricted to relatively lucrative areas.
  • Standard terms and conditions model: Under this model, there is certainty in prices, and terms and conditions, which ensures uniformity of infrastructure. However, finding the right price, and defining the appropriate terms and conditions are challenging issues.
  • Negotiation model: The negotiation model is a dynamic model under which the terms can be changed. It is an attractive model for the private sector but does not work for the government sector. The issues in this model relate to the inherent uncertainty in pricing and terms and the fact that it is open to dispute as it could have different terms for different partners.
  • Collaborative model: This model is considered the best one for Wi-Fi deployment as it is sustainable in the long term. It requires the selection of a partner or Digital Bandhu at the grassroots level. As services are rolled out, partners start reaping benefits and the government can support them to grow. However, the key challenges under this model relate to the identification and appointment of “Digital Bandhu” and the viability gap funding (VGF) flow mechanism.
  • Auction model: It is popular in terms of spectrum usage and involves minimum VGF. However, this model is not sustainable in the long term, as it might increase the last-mile costs and not remain profitable after two to three years due to high capital costs.

Finding the right model

Among the aforementioned models, the collaborative model is best suited to meet the Wi-Fi requirements of the country. This is because it follows an integrated approach that involves the use of existing government schemes. Further, the model is transparent and flexible, and allows for speedy implementation, as equipment for Wi-Fi installation is procured by Digital Bandhu with no government role.

The key outcomes of the proposed model are:

  • Achieving a target of 100 broadband subscribers on an average in each GP.
  • Generating massive sustainable self-employment including 0.166 million direct employment and 1.5 million indirect employment.
  • Adopting a holistic approach for the utilisation of BharatNet infrastructure, and addressing the first-line maintenance requirements of optical fibre cable infrastructure at the GP level through Digital Bandhu.
  • Triggering the broadband ecosystem and improving e-services like e-governance, e-health and e-education, and last-mile internet connectivity to institutions.

The way forward

Net, net, the adoption of the collaborative model by the government can bring in substantial benefits to the industry. In fact, it can prove to be a game changer as it has the potential to increase internet bandwidth to around 1,650 Gbps per annum. This amounts to 15–20 per cent of the entire bandwidth consumption in India.

(The views expressed in this presentation are the personal views of the author.)

Based on a presentation by Jitendra Garg, Director, Department of Telecommunications