Dr P.D. Vaghela, Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)

Almost every aspect of our daily life is now dependent on the reach of affordable digital connectivity. Wi-Fi must be considered as an optimal way forward for delivering affordable, quality and ubiquitous broadband in India. At a session organised by the Broadband India Forum on the occasion of World Wi-Fi Day, Dr P.D. Vaghela, chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), spoke about the emerging role of Wi-Fi services in achieving India’s digital vision. Edited excerpts…

The internet is one of the most powerful engines of socio-economic growth. In India, as well as elsewhere in the world, wireless broadband is fuelling the growth of internet services. The development of Indian broadband started moving forward in 2016 when 4G was proliferated on a massive scale. There has been no looking back since then. Data growth has risen from a mere 0.5 GB per user per month in 2016 to over 12 GB per user per month now, and is still growing.

The Indian appetite for data services appears to be insatiable. Despite having over 700 million broadband connections, the potential for growth is still very high. I believe that over 500 million people still need to be connected, especially in rural areas.

Worldwide, public Wi-Fi has emerged as one of the most successful means of enhancing broadband proliferation among the masses. For India, too, public Wi-Fi can be seen as a low-cost option for reaching unserved citizens. The Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) policy brings aspects of smooth roaming from one Wi-Fi access point to another, and thereby promotes the usage and growth of this broadband download facility. It is a giant step toward providing Wi-Fi ubiquity in India through the creation of 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots, as envisaged under the National Digital Communication Policy, 2018. This would not only help provide broadband to all, but will also create benefits such as direct and indirect employment opportunities for millions of small local entrepreneurs, as well as huge economic benefits resulting from broadband use cases. PM-WANI can fuel rapid internet inclusion in rural areas, which will be transformative given the low level of penetration currently compared to urban areas.

Wi-Fi linked to BharatNet fibre services can be the fastest route to bridging the existing digital divide. The government has decided to go for the public-private partnership mode so that BharatNet infrastructure can be commercialised to benefit more people.

5G promises seamless speeds and connectivity capabilities. It represents a major step forward from current connectivity options. However, keeping in mind aspects of mobile spectrum availability and network infrastructure constraints, we need to have a complementary Wi-Fi framework, including public Wi-Fi, to provide a powerful mechanism for downloading data traffic to a device. Going forward, the next-generation Wi-Fi6 will also reinforce the need for a robust public Wi-Fi network in the country. This will help deliver extremely high capacity, high speed and highly secure broadband services to the consumer. Wi-Fi6 and 5G expand opportunities for digitalisation across all industries, and that convergence introduces a new era of wireless access and enables organisations to do business everywhere by increasing productivity and offering the best user experience. Wi-Fi7 is also waiting in the wings, ready to enter by 2024. It is likely to increase data download speeds to 30 Gbps and provide latencies of less than 1 millisecond. This would further help complement 5G technology and improve overall quality of service by taking care of significant high-value downloads.

That said, a key aspect to the growth of Wi-Fi hotspots is the requirement of backhaul infrastructure for the growing Wi-Fi traffic. Given that the deployment of fibre has lots of challenges, wireless backhaul could also be considered. Here, liberalisation of backhaul spectrum by opening up the E and V bands would be of immense benefit. TRAI has already made recommendations in this regard to the government. It is also pertinent to consider the role that satellite communications can play in supporting Wi-Fi backhauling. TRAI has made suitable recommendations in this regard as well, for facilitating the use of reset-based networks for backhauling both cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

India needs all the technology channels to achieve its digital ambitions. Our technology-neutral policy will serve as the prime catalyst for the required growth to deliver broadband for all and to meet the requirement of an inclusive Digital India.