India is witnessing rapid urbanisation ac­ross the country. This has thrown open challenges such as an increase in the slum population, pressure on the existing public infrastructure, a rise in unemployment, a lack of formal education avenues for the masses, and inequitable access to mobility. Given the disparities that come with urbanisation, it is important for the government to focus on inclusive development.

In this context, information and communication technologies (ICT) are playing an enabling role. The government’s Digital India programme, which includes the creation of smart cities, is giving a fillip to the development and deployment of a robust ICT infrastructure across cities.

To this end, public Wi-Fi can serve as an effective tool in giving people access to high speed internet. Public Wi-Fi is wireless internet connectivity provided to people in institutions and public places such as libraries, airports, malls and railway stati­o­ns, typically by the city administration. De­p­­ending on different factors, Wi-Fi se­r­vi­ces are either provided free or on a cha­r­geable basis. These services can be used by resid­ents, tourists and businesses across the city.

Use case for smart cities

Public Wi-Fi is becoming an integral part of the upcoming smart cities. Wi-Fi access points can provide low-cost, secure connectivity for internet of things (IoT) applications such as environmental sensors, smart buildings and water/waste management. Public Wi-Fi is the most cost-effective so­lu­tion for delivering broa­d­band access to low-income households. It also provides easy-to-deploy backhaul for IP video applications, including surve­ill­ance, parking management and traffic control. In addition, Wi-Fi can be depl­o­yed with or in smart poles, digital kiosks and signages to enable low-cost deployments over large areas.

Public Wi-Fi makes for a favourable last-mile broadband delivery medium, as it is much easier to scale up as compared to setting up new 4G/LTE towers. It bolsters connectivity inside public structures where LTE penetration is inherently limited. It allows for offloading of data services from telecom networks in order to ease congestion. Further, it considerably brings down the cost of deploying additional services such as video solutions, IoT solutions, and broadband access in public areas.

At present, the installation and maintenance of Wi-Fi networks are undertaken either by using Smart City funds or thro­ugh public-private partnerships (PPPs). Un­der the PPP model, service providers deploy Wi-Fi and earn returns on their investments through business models such as advertising, premium access charges and corporate services.

India currently has only 36,000 commercial public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is fairly low when compared to markets such as China, which has more than 6.1 million hotspots, and Indonesia and Mexico, which have over 165,000 hotspots each.

The way forward

The government recently introduced the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 (NDCP 2018). Among the various goals that the policy has outlined, it targets the deployment of 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022. Of these, 5 million are to be set up by 2020. However, to achieve this, the government and the stakeholders must overcome the challenges in implementing such systems. These include lack of supporting infrastructure such as backhaul, ab­sence of single-window appr­oval for right of way, restrictions owing to the know-your-customer regulations, and iss­ues related to payments, standards, partnerships, revenue sharing models, cyberse­curity, and privacy and user authentication.

In order to address these challenges, the government should create a favourable regulatory ecosystem, which can incentivise players to invest in the development of public Wi-Fi systems. Further, Smart City authorities should come up with business models for faster roll-out and expansion of public Wi-Fi services where telecom operators can play a greater role.

Based on a presentation by Shubha N. Bhambhani, Principal General Manager, BSNL, at’s “Smart Cities in India” conference