Wi-Fi presents a big opportunity for India to meet its burgeoning data demand, but the country lacks in the number of Wi-Fi access points required to match the demand. While the world average today stands at one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 150 users, India has an average of one Wi-Fi hotspot for 20,000 users. There is an urgent need to narrow this gap and the government’s target of deploying 10 million hotspots by 2022 as part of the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 is a step in that direction. But the road ahead to achieve these targets is not an easy one. It took the industry over two decades to deploy 2.8 million base stations; and now we want to roll out 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots in the next three to four years. Certainly, it would require a different strategy. It would be unfair to assume that the entire responsibility of rolling out Wi-Fi infrastructure will be taken up by telcos. There is a need to look for new stakeholders who can complement the efforts of telecom service providers.

Regulatory impetus

In 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) started consultation on public Wi-Fi networks. In its interactions with service providers, who had deployed Wi-Fi hotspots at public places such as railway stations, airports and hotels, it was observed that 70-80 per cent customers who attempted to log in to the Wi-Fi system left the process mid way as too much information in terms of OTP, username, password, etc. was sought by the system. Other major challenges identified were the lack of interoperability among various Wi-Fi hotspots and the need to reauthorise every time one moved to a new hotspot. It made the process of switching to a Wi-Fi network extremely cumbersome for consumers. The absence of a seamless handoff from the cellular network to Wi-Fi is also missing. After the exhaustive consultation with stakeholders, TRAI has developed a Wi-Fi access network interface, which allows users to seamlessly roam from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another. It is a low-cost, seamless and interoperable network powered through millions of enterprises, shopkeepers, etc. The model is similar to the one adopted by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) back in the 80s to address the deficit in landline telephones in the country. DoT came up with the concept of public call offices (PCOs), which were installed at various public places to help bridge the demand-supply gap. A similar concept has been recommended for Wi-Fi, wherein millions of enterprises in the country can install public Wi-Fi hotspots on their premises. This will reduce the cost of operations for service providers, and expedite deployment. DoT is currently in the process of examining this framework. It has been observed that obtaining permission to deploy Wi-Fi hotspots from authorities of airports, metro stations, or large building complexes is an issue. Moreover, deploying a network that can be shared among services providers is a challenge. To address these issues, the government is considering amending the National Building Code in line with TRAI’s recommendations.

Lessons from global peers 

In France, one Wi-Fi hotspot is available for 20 users. In many European countries, private operators are  deploying Wi-Fi hotspots across residences and offices, which can also double as public hotspots. Two SSIDs (service set identifiers) are provided for each hotspot through network splicing, one for personal use and the other for public use. Another model that has been very successful both in Europe and the US is the involvement of cable TV companies for deploying Wi-Fi hotspots. India has approximately 100,000 cable operators that have expertise in maintaining cable TV networks but do not have technical skills to maintain broadband networks. They can be up-skilled to leverage the Wi-Fi opportunity. They have an edge in the market as they know their localities best and how to lay fibre there at minimum costs.

Meeting NDCP targets – TRAI recommendations

The aforementioned global practices, when modelled in the Indian scenario, can help in meeting the NDCP targets of 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022. Further, TRAI has already recommended to the government that the 2.4 GHz band spectrum, which is already delicensed and in use for Wi-Fi services, will not be sufficient to meet the Wi-Fi demand and that the 5 GHz band, which is already recognised for Wi-Fi networks, should be also delicensed in India. To this end, in October 2018, the government issued a notification making more than 600 MHz of spectrum available for availing of Wi-Fi services. The other challenge is backhaul. While OFC is an ideal medium, a robust fibre network can only be established over time. Keeping that in view, TRAI has recommended to the government to consider E and V bands for backhaul connectivity of wireless networks, which can also be used for connecting Wi-Fi hotspots.

The way forward

Wi-Fi today is a proven technology, which can support up to 1 Gbps speeds. While commercial deployment of 5G is still a few years away, India can leverage the Wi-Fi opportunity to align with the rest of the world for industry 4.0, IoT and M2M.

S.K. Singhal, Adviser, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India