The introduction of 3G/4G services and increasing data usage among consumers have spurred growth in the Wi-Fi market in India. Further, the growing adoption of Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices, the rising number of internet subscribers, greater availability of high-definition content including gaming and videos, and the growing SME (small and medium enterprise) and SOHO (small office/home office) segment have fuelled the demand for these services.

Given that mobile data offers limited bandwidth and is often costlier as compared to Wi-Fi services, the latter is more popular with telecom users. Owing to its higher bandwidth capabilities, consumers prefer using Wi-Fi connections not only in their households, but also in public places such as airports and railway stations.

Therefore, it can be stated that against this backdrop, Wi-Fi technology has taken the telecom landscape by storm, by reshaping and affecting the strategies of all service providers.

Meanwhile, the government’s Digital India initiative, launched in 2015 to ensure that government services are made available to citizens electronically by improving online infrastructure and by increasing internet connectivity, has further increased Wi-Fi deployments in public areas.

The key emerging trends in the Wi-Fi space are as follows…

Public Wi-Fi

A key factor that has been driving the growth of Wi-Fi hotspots is that this infrastructure has been backed by many state governments and the central government (through the Digital India initiative). Considering that a large part of the population avails of railway services daily, the railway ministry has plans to launch high-speed Wi-Fi broadband internet services at all major railway stations across the country. Meanwhile, most airports already provide Wi-Fi facilities.

An emerging model that has been successful in some global markets is the provision of white-label services. Under this, service providers set up a Wi-Fi network that is utilised by other organisations on a white-label basis. In India, operators like Ozone Networks offer these services. Ozone’s first nationwide contract was with Barista to offer Wi-Fi services at its outlets.

Digital India and Smart Cities

Wi-Fi has also become an essential part of the Digital India and Smart Cities initiatives. Recently, Google announced a partnership with RailTel for providing Wi-Fi across 500 railway stations, making it the largest Wi-Fi project in the country. Meanwhile, the setting up of 100 smart cities will open up avenues for public Wi-Fi deployment as several issues related to waste management, sustainable energy, parking, traffic, as well as security and surveillance will be addressed through this technology.

Data offloading

It is costlier for a mobile service provider to offer high speed broadband internet (on 3G or long term evolution networks), as compared to providing the same bandwidth through Wi-Fi. This is owing to the higher cost of equipment, spectrum licen­ce fee, etc. Moreover, in highly congested urban areas where there are a large number of users, the mobile network gets congested due to the limited availability of spectrum. Therefore, mobile network operators have started setting up Wi-Fi hotspots in public places where people can use their mobile internet plan via the local Wi-Fi hotspot of the service provider.

Vodafone India and Bharti Airtel recently launched Wi-Fi applications with the aim of shifting data traffic from their cellular networks. Both companies are setting up Wi-Fi hotspots either on their own or through their joint venture, FireFly Networks. The current focus is on cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru, where data consumption is growing at a very high rate due to the widespread adoption of 3G and 4G services.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has been setting up public Wi-Fi hotspots in a big way. Over the past year, it has set up Wi-Fi hotspots across various tourist destinations as part of the Digital India programme. According to BSNL, it would be setting up about 40,000 hotspots by 2018 with a total investment of Rs 60 billion. Several other operators like Tata Teleservices Limited, Telenor India and Sistema Shyam TeleServices Limited are also anticipating a surge in Wi-Fi uptake. Meanwhile, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limi­ted, which is planning to provide pan-Indian 4G services, is already offering public Wi-Fi services in Kolkata.

Various emerging business models involve the use of Wi-Fi to provide location-based services and advertising. For instance, before accessing a free network, a user could be required to watch a sponsor’s advertisement. Apart from this, there are community Wi-Fi models in which the home Wi-Fi gateway is opened for passers-by, allowing greater coverage. The operator gains additional public Wi-Fi usage without needing to set up hotspots in the area. The Wi-Fi services offered under this model are popular among SMEs across their areas of operations.

The way forward

Going forward, the market for public Wi-Fi in India is set to take off, considering the numerous opportunities and huge demand for these services. The country is still in a greenfield deployment phase, whi­­ch will allow service providers to in­corporate lessons from their global counterparts and enable rapid growth.