An ICRIER-BIF study pegs the internet’s contribution to India’s GDP at about 16 per cent or $534 billion by 2020. Public Wi-Fi networks offer affordable, scalable and versatile means to help facilitate internet access in rural and urban areas alike. They will help meet India’s growing digital infrastructure needs as the country moves towards 5G. As per an Analysys Mason Report on public Wi-Fi released in July 2018, India’s GDP could increase by over $20 billion between 2017 and 2019, largely due to public Wi-Fi.

Yet, unfortunately India is lagging behind other economies in terms of the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots. Based on the global average of one Wi-Fi hotspot for 150 people (two years ago), India should have 8 million hotspots. After much efforts from the government, we have about 0.35 million public Wi-Fi hotspots, which is merely about 5 per cent of the benchmark requirement. The global average has since been revised to one per 20 persons and is an indication that India has a long way to go.

The National Digital Communications Policy [NDCP], 2018 has set ambitious targets for public Wi-Fi hotspots both in cities/metros as well as in rural areas under the Connect India mission. It has set a target of 5 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022. For this, two initiatives have been proposed – NagarNet for establishing 1 million hotspots in urban areas; and JanWiFi for establishing 2 million hotspots in rural areas.

The Department of Telecommunications’ gazette notification to delicense 605 MHz of the 5 GHz band in line with developed economies such as the US, the UK and Korea is a welcome step. It will increase the availability of unlicensed spectrum for public Wi-Fi by almost six times. The new government’s recent plans to launch a network of interoperable 500,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots are laudable. This will enable roaming while moving from one public Wi-Fi hotspot to another. This is a step in the right direction, but for fully exploiting the potential of the sector, complete liberalisation is required as has been recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

The TRAI recommendations on a liberalised approach to public Wi-Fi and the unique WANI (Wi-Fi access network interface) standard for interoperability between hotspots will facilitate the creation of millions of hotspots. The creation of so many hotspots is not possible with the limited number of players in the industry and will require an army of small operators or public data office aggregators. They can provide Wi-Fi services without having to incur heavy costs, and help develop Wi-Fi hotspots like a small-scale industry akin to PCOs. It will enable small shop owners and micro entrepreneurs to provide Wi-Fi services.

This will lead to an exponential increase in the number of Wi-Fi hotspots in the country. The increasing reach of public Wi-Fi in urban and rural areas will make people aware of its advantages, thereby enhancing demand. Further, public data offices will ensure that users pay for the data based on their usage.

Since the cost of mobile broadband  has declined significantly after the arrival of a new entrant in the market, an argument often made is that we do not need public Wi-Fi. Even if the cost of usage offered by telcos and public Wi-Fi is the same, broadband capacity of the former is limited by spectrum. Consistent download capacity for heavy downloads makes public Wi-Fi significant from the ubiquitous broadband perspective.

Public Wi-Fi opens up a new additional revenue stream for telcos and small players. Moreover, it enables telcos to offload their cellular data on Wi-Fi networks to reduce the congestion on their networks and offer a better user experience to their customers. Thus, it should be seen as a service that will supplement and complement telco offerings.

It is a win–win for all as the consumer gets sufficient bandwidth to download video/data while the increase in data usage means higher revenues for the operator and higher levels of internet penetration to achieve the government’s Digital India objectives.

By T.V. Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum (The author is an Honorary Fellow of IET [London]. The views expressed here are his personal views. The article includes research inputs by Garima Kapoor)