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

In a session organised by the Broadband India Forum (BIF) on World Wi-Fi Day, Dr P.D. Vaghela, chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), shared his views on the significant role of Wi-Fi in connecting cities and communities around the world and bridging India’s digital divide. Edited excerpts from his address…

The Indian broadband landscape started expanding by the end of 2016 with the introduction of 4G long term evolution (LTE) mobile broadband. A surge in data usage has been witnessed since then, and from nearly 3 GB per user per month in 2016 to 15-17 GB per user per month at present. India now has approximately 800 million broadband connections and the appetite for data services appears to be growing further.

With the introduction of 5G services, another big surge in data usage is around the corner with technologies such as in­dustry 4.0, 5G broadcast, artificial inte­lli­­gence (AI), augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), machine-to-machine (M2M) and robotics. A study has found that in six leading 5G countries, that is, So­­u­th Korea, the UK, the US, Japan, Aus­tralia and Ger­many, smartphone users on average consu­me between 1.7 and 2.7 tim­es more mo­bile data after the introduction of 5G as compared to 4G. This is only the beginning of 5G implementation. In all the six markets, 5G users consumed more than 15 GB of mobile data on an average. India is already consuming more than 15 GB of data. As per a report by Ericsson, India may have 330 million 5G subscribers by 2026 and data usage may reach 40 GB per smartphone.

Technology has actually played an un­precedented role in connecting and making the world mobile, especially India, for almost two and a half decades of its existence. The advantages of Wi-Fi in terms of ease of operation, ease of maintenance, lower cost and ubiquitous availability have made it one of the most commonly used, dynamic and ever-evolving technologies. It has revolutionised the broadband landscape all over the world. The contribution of Wi-Fi in reducing the digital divide cannot be overemphasised.

Wi-Fi is the best companion of mobile broadband when it comes to offloading mobile traffic in a highly congested area or providing services where mobile signals ca­­nnot penetrate. With the increasing tr­end of working from home, or rather wor­king from anywhere, Wi-Fi will become an integral part of any building solution.

Keeping in mind the constraints of spectrum and network infrastructure, we need to have a complementary framework of Wi-Fi, including public Wi-Fi. World­wide Wi-Fi, especially public Wi-Fi, has emerged as one of the most successful me­ans of enhancing broadband connectivity and proliferation. As per the Cisco virtual network index study, it is expected that 59 per cent of the mobile data traffic globally will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2022.

There is a tremendous opportunity in India for the proliferation of public Wi-Fi hotspots. As per the public report of iPass, the penetration of public Wi-Fi hotspots in India is less than 1 per cent. According to data provided by TRAI, there are about 0.1 billion public Wi-Fi hotspots against a po­pulation of 1.4 billion. Around half a mi­llion access points are installed at these public Wi-Fi hotspots, which were acc­es­s­ed by around 5.4 million unique users in the month of February 2022. On the ot­h­er hand, the global estimate of public hot­­spots is 549 million as per a report.

TRAI has always been conscious of the need to promote Wi-Fi in India. In March 2017, TRAI gave recommendations to the government for the proliferation of broadband through public Wi-Fi networks. A new framework for providing Wi-Fi to public data offices (PDOs) and public data office aggregators (PDOAs) was recommended. Later, based on this concept, the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network In­terface (PM-WANI) was launched by the government in 2021. The PM-WANI sc­he­me lays down a roadmap for the Propel In­dia mission of the National Digital Co­m­munications Policy.

PM-WANI strategises to catalyse in­vestments, innovation and ease of doing business by promoting open public Wi-Fi access through Wi-Fi PDOs and PDOAs. The involvement of small entities like kirana shops for hosting Wi-Fi access po­in­ts to p­rovide broadband connectivity in areas that are still uncovered from the cellular coverage has great prospects. PM-WANI, however, has not made the desired progress, maybe due to competition with cheaper mobile data or slow developing high quality business model.

Another area of interest is the role that can be played by satellite communications and Wi-Fi together. Satellite communications can also become a much-needed medium for backhauling traffic from Wi-Fi hotspots. TRAI has made recommendations in this regard for facilitating the use of reset-based networks for backhauling of both cellular and Wi-Fi traffic. The government has already accepted this recommendation. Meanwhile, in its recommendation for the proliferation of broadband through public Wi-Fi networks in 2017, TRAI has also stated that all licensee category tax sharing of infrastructure related to Wi-Fi equipment such as Wi-Fi group routers, access points and backhaul should be allowed. The Department of Telecom­m­u­nications (DoT) has issued an amendment in this regard. Recently, we requested DoT to bring parity between different li­cences and authorities under a unified li­ce­nce as far as active and passive infrastr­ucture settings are concerned.

The BharatNet programme was based on the idea mooted by TRAI. It envisages the establishment and management of high speed broadband infrastructure in all local bodies and includes provisioning of last-mile connectivity to all village local bodies and villagers. Under the prog­ra­mme, Wi-Fi hotspots are being installed in 104,000 village local bodies. Of these, it has been activated in almost 50,000 bodies. This work will pick up in the coming months. The government has now decided that BharatNet will be implemented in public-private partnership mode. I think Wi-Fi hotspot penetration in villages will certainly increase as private enterprises take over this project.

Going forward, the expected arrival of next-generation Wi-Fi 6 will further reinforce the need for a robust public Wi-Fi network in the country. A robust public Wi-Fi network will help deliver extremely high capacity, high speed and highly secured broadband services to consumers by synergising with the PM-WANI mo­del. Wi-Fi 6e will be many times faster th­an the current Wi-Fi standard, and will offer better performance for every MHz of spectrum.

Wi-Fi 7 is also lurking on the horizon, which is likely to increase data download speeds to up to 10 GB per second and provide latencies of less than 1 millisecond. This would really help complement 5G technology and improve the overall quality of service. If we want to meet the future capacity requirement of users and increase spectrum availability, the future generation of Wi-Fi is essentially a precondition.

I am glad the government has started the auction of spectrum, which will be completed by the end of July 2022. The auction will be held for spectrum on various low, medium and high frequency ban­ds. It is expected that mid- and high ba­nd spectrum will be utilised by telecom ser­vice providers to roll out 5G technology-based services, capable of providing speed and capacity that will be 10 times higher than what is possible in the current 4G services.

Globally, interesting developments are taking place in this regard. For instance, the open roaming platform was launched in May 2020 as a global solution based on a common set of standards to bridge the gap between cellular and Wi-Fi services. Open roaming was initially developed by Cisco and was later taken over by the wireless broadband alliance. As of May 2022, this platform has passed the 1 million hotspots mark globally.

Further, the Hotspot 2.0 protocol has be­en developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, wh­i­ch enables mobile devices to discover and authenticate Wi-Fi hotspots that provide internet access. There are similar mo­dels being developed in India too.

Several recommendations by TRAI have already been implemented and this will help further the proliferation of Wi-Fi in remote and rural areas. I am sure that te­­le­com service providers and Wi-Fi hot­spot providers will collaborate and de­velop India-specific models to realise the full potential of Wi-Fi in India.