The increasing availability of high speed data at affordable prices has led to a growth in data consumption and consequently data traffic. This has caused network congestion in many areas, resulting in erratic connectivity. The issue may take a more serious shape in the future as more data users come on board to avail of the low tariffs and innovative schemes offered by operators. According to the Ericsson Mobility report released in 2018, data traffic in India is expected to grow more than five times from its current levels by 2023.

An appropriate offloading strategy is needed to manage the rise in data traffic and network congestion. Public Wi-Fi has emerged as one of the preferred ways to decongest networks in high-footfall areas. According to the Telecom Regulatory Au­tho­rity of India (TRAI), sharing of Wi-Fi infrastructure in busy areas can ease network congestion on operators’ mobile networks by offloading the data traffic to public networks.

Developed telecom markets such as the US, the UK and France offload about 30 per cent of their total data to public Wi-Fi networks, whereas in India, data offloading to public Wi-Fi networks is just about 16 per cent. As per industry estimates, the country has around 40,000 public hotspots at present. “This may be because of the lack of economic viability for providing public Wi-Fi services. To increase the scope of Wi-Fi service provisioning, it is envisaged that a new set of small players may be included in this space,” said TRAI chairman R.S. Sharma in an interview with

TRAI has recommended the creation of a framework to provide public Wi-Fi services by establishing public data offices (PDOs) and public data office aggregators (PDOAs), which will contribute to the large-scale deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots in the country. Meanwhile, in order to facilitate the roll-out of the public Wi-Fi network, the Department of Telecommu­nications (DoT) has recently directed the telcos to submit a three-year roadmap for the development of the public Wi-Fi system.

Policy focus

The government is betting big on public Wi-Fi to realise its Digital India dream. DoT is planning to roll out around 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country, at least one in every village, by the end of 2018. Further, the recently released draft National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) lays emphasis on broadband connectivity and identifies public Wi-Fi as the means to achieve this objective. DoT has set a target of 5 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022. As per industry leaders, about 70 per cent of the hotspots will be in rural areas and the remaining in urban areas.

In this regard, a public Wi-Fi roadmap has been laid out, which proposes several initiatives at the rural and the urban levels. These initiatives will be funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund and public-private partnerships. Apart from BharatNet, the government will roll out Wi-Fi hotspots under the NagarNet and JanWiFi projects. The government aims to set up 1 million public Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas under the NagarNet project, and 2 million Wi-Fi hotspots in rural areas under the JanWiFi project.

Meanwhile, under BharatNet, a few gram panchayats will be connected by wireless community Wi-Fi hotpots. Re­cen­tly, DoT has issued a Rs 100 billion tender for setting up public Wi-Fi hot­spots in every gram panchayat to ensure higher penetration of broadband in rural areas. The government plans to set up five hotspots per gram panchayat. Of the Rs 100 billion, about Rs 36 billion is expected to come from the government as viability gap funding. The Wi-Fi hotspots will be available for the public in rural areas and will connect social institutions such as po­lice stations, primary health centres, schools and post offices.

The big industry debate – PDOs and PDOAs

The draft NDCP also suggested establishing a no-licensing regime for enabling PDOs and PDOAs to provide internet access through Wi-Fi hotspots. The idea of PDOs as Wi-Fi access points was first mooted by TRAI in its recommendations on “Proliferation of Broadband through Public Wi-Fi Networks” in March 2017. PDOs will be established on the lines of public call offices and will comprise companies and small entrepreneurs that are ready to offer their premises for hosting the Wi-Fi hotspots. The infrastructure required for providing Wi-Fi services will be set up by PDOAs on the premises of the PDOs. A single PDOA can be linked to several PDOs. The introduction of PDOs and PDOAs is expected to address the issues of awareness, availability and affordability on the demand side in the public Wi-Fi space.

In July 2018, much to the dismay of telecom operators, TRAI recommended that PDOAs should be allowed to operate without obtaining a licence. The broader aim is to increase the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the country.

TRAI’s move, however, has triggered a debate in the telecom industry on whether or not PDOAs should  be brought under the licensing ambit. The Cellular Opera­tors Association of India (COAI), the industry body representing the operators, is of the view that allowing unlicensed operators in the public Wi-Fi space puts licensed operators at a disadvantage. Currently, all mobile operators and internet service providers have to obtain licences from DoT for providing services, and pay licence fees and sp­ec­trum charges periodically.

The COAI has also argued that allowing unlicensed service providers to operate in this space can compromise data privacy and have serious implications for national security. In a letter to DoT, the COAI has said, “In TRAI’s proposed structure, the PDOAs have no obligation to offer lawful interception and monitoring facilities. Further, activities such as subscriber registration and verification have been left to the discretion of PDOAs and they have been permitted to even outsource these activities, which is a serious threat to data privacy and national security.” As per the TRAI Act, the authority is empowered to regulate only licensed service provi­ders and TRAI will become ineffectual in regulating unlicensed entities on key aspects such as tariff, consumer redressal, billing, net neutrality and quality of service, which are critical aspects for the protection of consumer interests.


The security of these services is a key challenge since these are mostly open networks. The confidential information of pu­blic Wi-Fi users including important passwords, card numbers and banking details is exposed to attacks. Other issues include difficulty in logging in, restriction on simultaneous login through multiple devices, and the lack of a framework on roaming between Wi-Fi networks and for providing Wi-Fi access to foreign tourists. On the operator’s end, Indian telcos do not have high backhaul capacity in E-band (71-76 GHz/81-86 GHz) and V-band (57-64 GHz), which has also become a barrier for Wi-Fi provisioning.

The way forward

While the industry is yet to discover a successful implementation model for the provisioning of these services, the government is already making efforts to give a new lease of life to the public Wi-Fi space. Going forward, deeper penetration of public Wi-Fi networks will facilitate data offloading in high density public areas, thus resolving the issues of call drops and poor connectivity faced by users. According to a report by Google and Analysys Mason, public Wi-Fi is expected to connect around 40 million users in India by 2019. In rural areas, public Wi-Fi services can prove to be a veritable game changer and significantly alter the data landscape.