Enhancing Wi-Fi connectivity has been on the Indian government’s radar for the past few years. Several central government initiatives, such as the BharatNet project and the Prime Minister’s Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) scheme, have been undertaken in this regard. State governments too have been actively involved in initiatives to scale up Wi-Fi connectivity. However, there is still a long way to go.
For instance, India has fallen significantly short of its target for rolling out public Wi-Fi hotspots. Only around 0.5 million hotspots have been established, much lower than the intended 10 million by the end of 2022, as outlined in the National Digital Communications Policy-2018.
Comparatively, when looking at the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots per million population, India’s count is 175 times lower than that of the UK, 50 times lower than the US, and 75 times lower than China. At this rate, India is likely to miss its ambitious target of 50 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2030, as stated in the latest Bharat 6G Vision document.
A look at the progress under key government initiatives undertaken in the Wi-Fi space…
The BharatNet project is a major initiative by the Government of India to connect all of India’s villages and gram panchayats (GPs) with broadband internet connectivity. The availability of public Wi-Fi hotspots under BharatNet will help improve digital connectivity in rural India and bring a host of benefits to the people living in these areas.
As of August 2023, public Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed in 104,675 GPs under the project. Of these, 6,330 GPs have active Wi-Fi hotspots. The BharatNet public Wi-Fi service is available to all users, free of charge. However, some GPs may charge a nominal fee for the use of the Wi-Fi service.
The government intends to provide a minimum of 100 Mbps bandwidth at each GP through BharatNet. However, the actual speed of the Wi-Fi connection at a particular GP depends on several factors, such as the number of users, the distance from the optical fibre and the quality of the equipment.
PM-WANI is a government initiative launched in December 2020 by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to provide affordable and reliable internet access to citizens through public Wi-Fi hotspots. These hotspots, referred to as public data offices (PDOs), are to serve as last-mile distribution points for broadband internet, offering affordable sachet-sized data packages priced between Rs 5 to 10. Under the scheme, any entity, including individuals, small businesses and non-profits, can set up a public Wi-Fi hotspot by leasing Wi-Fi bandwidth from telecom operators. The entity will be required to register with the PM-WANI Central Registry and obtain a licence from the DoT.
As of September 2023, a total of 150,350 public Wi-Fi hotspots have been deployed under the PM-WANI scheme across India. The highest number of hotspots (40,542) is in Delhi, followed by Karnataka (18,394) and Maharashtra (15,489). Arunachal Pradesh has seen a significant increase in the number of hotspots in the past month, from 598 in July 2023 to 1,016 in September 2023.
As more and more PDOs go live, the PM-WANI scheme will continue to burgeon and develop, becoming an even more potent instrument for closing the digital divide.
Various states have also taken initiatives to make the internet more accessible to the people by deploying free public Wi-Fi hotspots. One of the most recent developments comes from Bengaluru, where the Karnataka government has decided to set up 5,000 free public hotspots. This is in line with the goals of the state government as underlined in the Digital Karnataka initiative. Already, 3,000 hotspots have been identified in the city. This is planned to be scaled to over 5,000 hotspots eventually.
Meanwhile, the Department of Information Technology, Electronics and Communications (DITE&C) of Goa is planning to establish and operationalise over 100 Wi-Fi hotspots across the state to provide free and seamless internet services. The department is currently in the process of selecting an agency to set up and operate these hotspots. The Wi-Fi hotspots will be set up in select government offices, bus stands, public parks, libraries, citizen service centres and other locations with high footfalls. The Goa government is also planning to set a daily download limit for the free public Wi-Fi hotspots that will be set up across the state. In an effort to monetise the operation, the DITE&C is considering allowing citizens and users to access the internet for a fee once the daily usage limit is exceeded. The department has put up a tender for the project and aims to select an agency soon. The selected service provider will be required to complete the project within 15-20 days of the issuance of the work order. The initial contract is for one year, but it may be extended for the next two years.
In a bid to increase the availability of the internet for the people of Tamil Nadu, the state government has incorporated free Wi-Fi services, TN Tech City and other initiatives in the state budget for 2023-24. The corporation has further decided to install Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the city as part of its Smart City Mission project to facilitate information access to citizens and tourists, which is expected to strengthen tourism in the city. Users are not required to enter their phone numbers to access Wi-Fi.
Kerala is also making strides in deploying public Wi-Fi, with the inauguration of Queen’s Walkway, the first free “Wi-Fi street” in the state. The project had a budget of Rs 3.18 million and covers a stretch of 1.80 km. Along the walkway, nine poles have been erected with 18 access points, allowing around 75 people to access quality Wi-Fi at one access point at a time. However, free access for each individual is limited to 30 minutes and a speed of 5 Mbps per day. The government will take a call on raising the free access limit based on consumption patterns.
Meanwhile, in an interesting turn of events, after facing technical issues regarding the renewal of the contract for the deployment of free Wi-Fi in Delhi, the government is reportedly planning to relaunch the facility. This is expected to make the internet more accessible to the citizens of Delhi, once it is implemented.
Khurai, Madhya Pradesh, is also providing free Wi-Fi services. The project is in its initial stage and is expected to be expanded by September 2023. Meanwhile, the Tripura government has tabled a budget of Rs 276.54 billion, which includes the provision of public Wi-Fi facilities in 300 villages. On the same lines, the Municipal Corporation of Karimnagar, Telangana, has decided to provide free Wi-Fi under the Karimnagar Smart City Scheme. Finally, students from technical institutions and universities in Odisha have been provided with the opportunity to avail free Wi-Fi facilities for the 2023-24 academic session.
The future of BharatNet and PM-WANI is promising. These two schemes have the potential to bridge the digital divide and boost India’s digital economy. The combination of BharatNet and PM-WANI will make it possible to provide affordable and reliable internet access to all citizens of India. The different state initiatives also point to India’s commitment to achieving its ambitious goal of 50 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2030. These initiatives demonstrate the central government’s willingness to work with stakeholders to ensure that everyone has access to the internet. This will have a transformative impact on the lives of millions of people and will help boost the country’s digital economy.