The expansion of digital infrastructure under the government’s Digital India programme, the increasing appetite for data and the growing affordability of data-based services are contributing to the demand for Wi-Fi connectivity in the country. However, India lags behind its global counterparts when it comes to the availability of Wi-Fi infrastructure. The world average today stands at one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 150 users, whereas India has an average of one Wi-Fi hotspot for 20,000 users.
Various industry stakeholders have been working to enable seamless Wi-Fi coverage. These include service providers that have helped in creating an infrastructure layer for offloading mobile data, and improving coverage and capacity. Recently, Cisco announced its plans to roll out free high speed Wi-Fi zones across India in partnership with Google Station. The companies aim to provide free, open, high quality public Wi-Fi to communities around the country. Further, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has partnered with Paytm to launch a Wi-Fi service, enabling customers to access public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country using the Paytm application. Under the partnership, various public places have been converted into BSNL Wi-Fi zones and users can avail of this facility after purchasing a Wi-Fi plan. Paytm will notify the users if they are near a BSNL Wi-Fi hotspot location. Meanwhile, ACT Fibernet has entered into a partnership with the Greater Chennai Corporation to roll out free Wi-Fi zones in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Under the partnership, over 25 Wi-Fi zones have been rolled out across prime locations in the city, including 14 Amma canteens across 15 zones. Further, in January 2020, the Maxima Digital-Techno Sat Comm consortium tied up with the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation to offer free high speed Wi-Fi services on the Delhi Metro, starting January 2020. At present, the service is being offered across all stations and trains on the Airport Express Line.
Public Wi-Fi and policy initiatives
India had around 0.3 million public Wi-Fi hotspots as of August 2019. Of these, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) and BSNL account for around 88 per cent, as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, followed by Reliance Jio, QuadGen Wireless, Smart Cities and RailTel. As per industry reports, public Wi-Fi hotspots in India are expected to see a sevenfold jump to reach 2.1 million by 2021, owing to strong government support under the BharatNet project, RailTel’s focus on railway stations and the Ministry of Urban Development’s smart cities project. Apart from this, the government’s focus on Wi-Fi deployment under the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, will drive growth in the segment. The policy aims to roll out 5 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022.
Further, the government is planning to bring 6,500 railway stations online through Wi-Fi connections. At present, around 5,000 Indian stations are equipped with the Wi-Fi facility. In addition, the government will provide free internet to all villages connected through common service centres (CSCs) till March 2020. Overall, there are 360,000 CSCs in around 225,000 gram panchayats (GPs). The government has already connected 130,000 GPs through BharatNet. Meanwhile, RailTel has successfully provided free public Wi-Fi at 5,500 stations across the country.
The Delhi government has planned to set up around 11,000 hotspots across the city, for which work has already begun. In July 2019, the Department of Telecommunications approved plans to implement Wi-Fi interoperability to allow users to connect with any public Wi-Fi hotspot in the country that is in range. The model, called Bharat Wi-Fi, has been jointly proposed by all telecom companies, internet service providers, and virtual network operators, which will work together to offer Wi-Fi through public hotspots via roaming agreements.
New use cases
In Haridwar, rituals are being performed and streamed live using Wi-Fi. The 2019 Kumbh Mela was one of the largest tech-driven events where telecom operators came forward with a suite of initiatives running on the back of strong Wi-Fi connectivity. These included setting up of a family locator, telecast of special events and news alerts of the event. There were 4,000 Wi-Fi hotspots with high speed internet connectivity, connecting over 1,400 CCTV cameras and enabling 2,000 digital signs in traffic management. Apart from this, Wi-Fi trackers are being used in telematics for monitoring the movement of goods and passengers. States can also deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots in smart cities. Further, retail outlet is one big segment which can deploy Wi-Fi services either through the public data office aggregator model or the operator model. This in turn will help telcos in offloading mobile data, thereby optimising spectrum usage, and reducing capex and opex.
Despite significant efforts, indoor as well as outdoor Wi-Fi experience remains suboptimal. Moreover, a coverage gap still exists in urban centres owing to underinvestment in Wi-Fi infrastructure. While steps are being taken to improve public Wi-Fi in India, the country is still far behind developed countries. For instance, the UK has deployed one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 11 people, much above the global average. British Telecom has around 5 million hotspots. It has converted home routers into public Wi-Fi hotspots, providing free net access to other subscribers without affecting the bandwidth of its customers.
There are several roadblocks in Wi-Fi deployment in the country, including right of way, availability of backhaul and huge debt on telcos. Another challenge is the monetisation of public Wi-Fi hotspots, which can be addressed with the proliferation of Wi-Fi in the country. This can be done with the help of advertising, data analytics and mobile data offloading. Further, public Wi-Fi services are prone to security attacks due to the non-encryption of such networks.
The way forward
India is witnessing a huge data demand of 10-12 GB per consumer per month, which presents a unique opportunity for Wi-Fi players. India can leverage the Wi-Fi opportunity to align with the rest of the world for Industry 4.0, IoT and M2M. As per industry analysts, Wi-Fi will not only help telecom service providers (TSPs) offload their data, but also benefit non-TSP stakeholders that can save Rs 600 billion using ubiquitous Wi-Fi. In the next two years, India will witness around 1.25 million public Wi-Fi hotspot additions including 20,000 in colleges, 50,000 in smart cities, 4,791 in category B, C, D and E railway stations (of which 800 stations are situated in 115 backward districts), retail outlets and others.
Going forward, there is a pressing need to make returns on Wi-Fi investments more attractive. This calls for active government and industry participation.