Over the past few years, robust broadband connectivity has emerged as the underlying backbone for digital connectivity. The importance of broadband was especially highlighted last year when the Covid-19 pandemic crippled economies and paved the way for remote working, which was fully dependent on different mediums of broadband services. These mediums comprise mobile-based broadband, which is the most ubiquitous form of connectivity in India; fixed broadband, which provides reliable connectivity to homes as well as enterprises; satellite broadband, which enables connectivity in remote and rural parts of the country; and

Wi-Fi services. Among these, Wi-Fi as a medium has the capability to combine the best of the other three technologies to offer reliable, high speed mobile connectivity at cost-effective rates.

Recognising these benefits of Wi-Fi technology, the government has been advocating its widespread adoption to bridge the digital divide. Wi-Fi deployments are now an active part of the government’s ambitious BharatNet project. Under the project, Wi-Fi is fast emerging as a suitable medium for rolling out digital connectivity in far-flung rural areas. The Union cabinet recently approved the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) scheme to scale up the presence of public Wi-Fi networks across the country. The move is expected to transform the public Wi-Fi space in India and help strengthen India’s digital footprint.

A look at the key initiatives in the Wi-Fi space, the operator plans, and the way forward for the segment…

Current scenario

At present, only a small percentage of users access broadband using Wi-Fi hotspots due to the lack of availability. While the world average stands at about one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 150 users, India has an average of only one Wi-Fi hotspot for 20,000 users. Further, Cisco’s Annual Internet Report 2018-23 states that India has only about 0.1 million Wi-Fi hotspots, as against a global availability of 169 million. In terms of Wi-Fi installations under BharatNet, about 105,187 gram panchayats (GPs) have been connected through Wi-Fi services, but Wi-Fi is operational in only 64,740 GPs.

As per Cisco’s report, there will be close to 628 million hotspots globally by 2023. Going by these projections and 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. However, the government’s National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, aims to install only 10 million hotspots by end 2022. Clearly, India has a long way to go in terms of scaling up the presence of Wi-Fi networks.

Telcos upping the VoWiFi game

Another upcoming technology in the Wi-Fi domain is voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi), which enables voice calling using a Wi-Fi connection when the cellular network is poor or not available. VoWiFi is quite similar to VoLTE, but instead of 4G it uses the Wi-Fi network to make calls. VoWiFi technology helps in significantly improving indoor connectivity. Further, the technology eliminates mobile blackspots for users by making it possible to make and receive calls over Wi-Fi or wireless internet connections.

In India, all three private telcos, Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea Limited, have started offering VoWiFi services. Bharti Airtel was the first mobile operator to introduce VoWiFi services in India. At present, Airtel’s VoWiFi services are live across India, Jio offers them in select circles while Vi’s VoWi-Fi services are available in four circles, Mumbai, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa, and Kolkata.

PM-WANI: A game changer in the public Wi-Fi space

The launch of the PM-WANI initiative has been the biggest game changer in the public Wi-Fi space in India. The government has launched the project to promote the growth of public Wi-Fi networks in the country. Under the project, public Wi-Fi networks will be set up by public data office aggregators (PDOAs), which would provide public Wi-Fi services through public data offices (PDOs).

The PM-WANI ecosystem will be operated by different players comprising PDOs, PDOAs, app providers and the central registry. The PDOs, PDOAs and app providers need to get themselves registered with the Department of Telecommunications through an online registration portal, without paying any registration fee. According to the government, the registration will be granted within seven days of the application. Under the project, businesses interested in offering Wi-Fi services can use their physical location to provide Wi-Fi to anyone that happens to be nearby. This will be done through internet connectivity from telcos like Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio or any other internet service provider (ISP).

The initiative will result in the creation of millions of Wi-Fi hotspots through unlicensed entities, which do not need to register, pay licence fees or comply with onerous statutory obligations. This will help provide Wi-Fi access across the country, particularly in rural, remote and unconnected areas, thereby propelling socio-economic growth by providing employment opportunities for small, local and village-level entrepreneurs, kirana stores, tea shops, etc. Further, the model will help enhance the disposable income of small and medium entrepreneurs and boost the GDP of the country. The PM-WANI policy will also result in the creation of an enormous demand for indigenous Wi-Fi components, thereby opening up opportunities for domestic component manufacturers.

Entering the Wi-Fi 6E era

Another recent development in the Wi-Fi space is 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. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, “Wi-Fi 6E brings the immense benefits of 6 GHz spectrum to consumers, device manufacturers and service providers as the band is being made available around the world.”

The Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification will help ensure that users receive a secure, reliable and interoperable experience with Wi-Fi 6E devices. This is because Wi-Fi 6E certification utilises WPA3 security, which continually evolves to address market needs. In fact, WPA3 has recently been updated to support even more robust password generation, mitigate additional attacks, and further protect and maintain privacy on Wi-Fi networks.

The US, Europe, Chile, South Korea and the UAE have decided to use 6 GHz for Wi-Fi services. Further, countries including Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Taiwan, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Jordan are quickly progressing towards opening 6 GHz for unlicensed operation. 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.

Challenges and the way forward

Net, net, the Indian Wi-Fi space has a long way to go to come on par with its global counterparts. To enable the widespread proliferation of Wi-Fi networks, the key roadblocks to Wi-Fi deployments need to be removed. These include right-of-way issues, inadequate backhaul and challenges pertaining to the monetisation of public Wi-Fi hotspots. Further, public Wi-Fi services are prone to cybersecurity attacks due to the non-encryption of such networks. Challenges notwithstanding, the Wi-Fi domain is set to witness intense activity in the coming years, especially after the launch of the government’s PM-WANI initiative.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi