In a world currently battling the Covid-19 crisis, internet access has become an absolute necessity to sustain economies, run businesses and stay connected. While there are several mediums for enabling internet access, Wi-Fi has the capability to combine the best of fixed and mobile broadband technologies to offer reliable, high speed mobile connectivity at cost-effective rates. Therefore, the government has been encouraging the proliferation of Wi-Fi networks to help bridge India’s digital divide.

Wi-Fi deployments are now a key component of the government’s ambitious BharatNet project. The government has recently launched the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) scheme to scale up public Wi-Fi networks across the country. The move is expected to transform the public Wi-Fi space and help strengthen India’s digital footprint. The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 has set an ambitious target of rolling out 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022. All these government initiatives require the active involvement of private stakeholders in scaling up the coverage of Wi-Fi networks.

A look at the evolving Wi-Fi space in India and the way forward for the segment…

Key market trends

The adoption of Wi-Fi services is increasing rapidly, especially since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the shift to the work-from-home scenario and the increasing thrust to digitalisation of businesses, Wi-Fi has become a critical requirement to meet the growing demand for data consumption.

However, there is a dearth of Wi-Fi hotspots in the Indian market, and only a small percentage of users can access broadband using Wi-Fi due to the lack of hotspot availability. While the world average stands at one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 150 users, India has an average of only one Wi-Fi hotspot for 20,000 users. As per Cisco’s Annual Internet Report 2018-23, India has only 0.1 million Wi-Fi hotspots in total, as against a global availability of 169 million. Further, the report states that there will be around 628 million hotspots globally by 2023.

Considering these projections as well as the size of the Indian telecom market, which has about one-sixth of the total telecom subscribers in the world, there should be at least 100 million public Wi-Fi hotspots in the country by 2023. This number suggests that India clearly has a long way to go in terms of scaling up its Wi-Fi networks.

Moreover, India’s mobile broadband speeds go up to 30 per cent of the global speeds. Therefore, the country needs an overhaul in terms of quality to serve the growing needs of consumers. High capacity ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage is important for India when it comes to handling mobile data offloading (MDO) at par with advanced countries in order to increase the efficiency and quality of services, and ensure the optimal use of scarce spectrum resources.

Expanding scope of active infrastructure sharing

A key initiative on the Wi-Fi front undertaken by the Department of Telecommunication in April 2021 has been the amendment to the unified access service licence rules, widening the scope of active infrastructure sharing. The move is aimed at giving an impetus to public Wi-Fi services and driving broadband penetration. Under the amended rules, active infrastructure sharing related to Wi-Fi equipment such as Wi-Fi routers, access points and backhaul has been allowed. This will help deliver public Wi-Fi services optimally and enable telcos to reduce both their capex and opex spends by sharing the relevant Wi-Fi infrastructure.

Thrust on public Wi-Fi

Apart from allowing active infrastructure sharing to expand the public Wi-Fi coverage, the government has introduced the PM-WANI initiative, which could prove to be a game changer for the public Wi-Fi space. Through the initiative, the government plans to offer better quality to users via a ubiquitous network of public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country.

PM-WANI envisages the delivery of Wi-Fi services via public data offices (PDOs), public data office aggregators (PDOAs) and app providers. This could lead to an explosive growth in small businesses and create employment opportunities for small local entrepreneurs, kirana stores, tea shops, etc., especially in rural areas. At the PDO, PDOA and app provider levels, this is likely to encourage large-scale entrepreneurship and innovation, and attract a large number of investments into the sector. Besides, a growing public Wi-Fi ecosystem will open up opportunities in the fields of MDO, agritech, financial inclusion through direct benefit transfer and location-based advertising.

Recognising the benefits of public Wi-Fi networks, governments and private stakeholders have started taking initiatives for the expansion of public Wi-Fi. For instance, the Telangana government recently launched over 3,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots in Hyderabad as part of the Hy-Fi project in collaboration with ACT Fibernet. Further, the Uttar Pradesh government has announced that it will provide free Wi-Fi facility in the state starting August 15, 2021. The free Wi-Fi facility will be available across all 75 districts, offices, municipal councils, 17 municipal corporations and 217 public places in the state. Indian Railways has also created a public Wi-Fi network across 6,021 railway stations under its RailWire initiative. The Wi-Fi network is free for the first 30 minutes of usage per day.

Among private stakeholders, Facebook India has announced new partnerships with D-Vois and Netplus to expand public Wi-Fi coverage across the country. The two internet service providers (ISPs) will be using Facebook Connectivity’s Express Wi-Fi platform to launch public Wi-Fi hotspots across Bengaluru and several cities of Punjab, respectively, to provide fast, affordable and reliable internet over Wi-Fi. Express Wi-Fi is a software platform developed by Facebook Connectivity, which enables mobile operators, satellite operators and ISPs to build, grow and monetise their Wi-Fi businesses in a sustainable and scalable way, while providing their customers with faster, high quality and more affordable internet. In India, the platform has already been deployed by eight partners, providing public Wi-Fi options across 12 states.

Transition towards Wi-Fi 6/6E

The Wi-Fi space is witnessing a major transition in terms of technology with next-generation Wi-Fi 6/6E expected to be rolled out soon. The new technology is superior in terms of capacity, speed and security and also offers better spectrum efficiency. Wi-Fi 6 is also expected to complement 5G technology as it has similar features (high throughput and low latency). With lower entry barriers, it would be useful for rolling out rural as well as enterprise networks.

A key development in this regard has been the Wi-Fi Alliance’s move to start certifying the first wave of products with support for Wi-Fi 6E technology. This has been regarded as one of the biggest updates in the Wi-Fi space in the past 20 years. The certification will help ensure that users receive a secure, reliable and interoperable experience with Wi-Fi 6E devices.

According to the International Data Corporation, Wi-Fi 6E will see rapid adoption in 2021, with more than 338 million devices entering the market and nearly 20 per cent of all Wi-Fi 6 device shipments supporting 6 GHz by 2022. However, the technology is still at a nascent stage in the Indian market, with vendors currently launching Wi-Fi 6-based products.

Enterprise-wide connectivity

Wi-Fi 6 has also emerged as the new buzzword in the enterprise connectivity space. It offers speeds of up to 11 Gbps and is, therefore, useful for enterprises that require a high-throughput network. Wi-Fi 6 also makes videoconferencing, cloud access and virtual events more seamless. Moreover, it provides better streaming capabilities, dependable connectivity and improved file sharing capacity. It can enhance the battery life of client devices such as smartphones, laptops and IoT devices. Given the host of benefits offered by the technology, its integration with the Wi-Fi network of enterprises can help create unique use cases.

For instance, airports have a large number of users at any given time and a seamless Wi-Fi connection to these users can be provided through Wi-Fi 6 technology. In the education sector, universities and colleges can deploy Wi-Fi 6 technology to facilitate the efficient use of various applications, devices and services being offered on the college premises that require robust connectivity. Further, the healthcare sector is seeing growing adoption of various new-age technology solutions such as blockchain-based data management systems and IoT-based monitoring devices. Given the criticality of solutions deployed in hospitals, they need to be supported by seamless connectivity, which can be provided by technologies like Wi-Fi 6.

Emerging opportunities

For telecom tower companies

The increasing deployment of Wi-Fi networks has opened up a range of opportunities for key stakeholders in the telecom domain. In particular, the government’s ambitious target of deploying 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022 under the NDCP, 2018 has created opportunities for towercos as well as Wi-Fi providers. As the Wi-Fi market is highly under penetrated at present, towercos can turn into neutral host public Wi-Fi providers that can provide both Wi-Fi equipment as well as operations and maintenance (O&M) to telcos/service providers.

Towercos are well suited to play the role of a neutral host in Wi-Fi deployments. This can help telcos avoid the considerable cost of setting up individual infrastructure. The infrastructure sharing model can be extended for Wi-Fi deployment as well, thus bringing in opex and capex efficiency for telecom operators. As per an EY report, the overall addressable market value of the Wi-Fi segment in India is expected to be in the range if Rs 45 billion-Rs 50 billion by 2023. Of this, towercos are expected to account for a 30-40 per cent share, with an overall towerco opportunity of Rs 15 billion-Rs 20 billion.

For Wi-Fi equipment manufacturers

Another group benefiting from the increased focus on the Wi-Fi segment is Wi-Fi equipment manufacturers. For one, the government’s PM-WANI initiative has given an impetus to local manufacturing and supply chain sectors for producing indigenous Wi-Fi equipment for Wi-Fi hotspots. This could also help meet the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat objective. Further, the recently announced production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme for telecom and networking equipment will drive indigenous manufacturing of telecom products including Wi-Fi products.

In fact, a number of companies have started launching new Wi-Fi products to leverage emerging opportunities in this space. Recently, HFCL partnered with Qualcomm Technologies to develop its Wi-Fi 6 portfolio of products. These products are targeted towards global carriers, enterprises and internet service providers. Further, VVDN Technologies has started completely-knocked-down manufacturing in India in the domains of 5G, Wi-Fi, camera and vision, and IoT. Earlier, VVDN had entered into a partnership with HFCL to launch Wi-Fi 6-based wireless solutions for the Indian and global markets. The solutions have already been deployed in the Indian market and trials are underway in the international market.

Security is key

Net, net, Wi-Fi technology is expected to witness even greater traction during the post-pandemic era. However, a key challenge associated with the security of Wi-Fi networks needs to be addressed for ensuring the smooth functioning of the network. When wireless devices in a network are either open or unsecured, they can be accessed by any Wi-Fi-enabled device such as a computer or a smartphone that lies within the range of their wireless signals. In this scenario, using open or unsecured networks can be risky for users as well as organisations. Adversaries using internet-connected devices can collect users’ personal information, steal identities, compromise financial and other sensitive business data, etc.

To this end, media access control addresses can be used to restrict access to a Wi-Fi network. Apart from this, security protocols with encryption could be deployed. Users can switch to virtual private networks to create secure, identity-protected tunnels between unprotected Wi-Fi networks and the internet can be used to secure Wi-Fi networks. Different types of consumer and enterprise software can also provide security to Wi-Fi networks.