Amidst the surging demand for data and the resulting network congestion, Wi-Fi networks continue to be a promising medium for providing high-speed internet connectivity. Internet service providers incur substantially lesser costs in setting up Wi-Fi access infrastructure compared to mobile broadband networks. This is because of the fact that Wi-Fi technology utilises unlicensed spectrum and the equipment involved is cheaper and more readily available as compared to mobile networks. Moreover, the maintenance and operational costs of Wi-Fi networks are significantly low. The lower cost of Wi-Fi delivery translates into lower prices per MB for the end-users, making it a more affordable service. In addition, Wi-Fi networks offer faster speeds compared to mobile data, allowing users to access more data-intensive applications and content. Further, Wi-Fi networks enable easy and convenient access to the internet and support seamless device mobility within their coverage area. It can also be easily scaled to accommodate additional devices and users without significant infrastructure changes.
The global Wi-Fi market has been experiencing robust growth, driven by the increasing demand for wireless connectivity in homes, businesses and public spaces. The proliferation of smartphones and connected devices, the increasing thrust on digital connectivity under smart city projects and the growing trend of remote work and online education have further fuelled this demand. According to industry estimates, the global Wi-Fi market was worth $12.3 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach a valuation of $31.3 billion by 2027, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 20.4 per cent.
The expansion of the Wi-Fi market in India is being fuelled by both private telecom companies and government initiatives. In order to meet the surging demand for high-speed internet connectivity, private telecom players are actively involved in deploying Wi-Fi networks to serve both residential and enterprise consumers. Meanwhile, the Indian government is actively promoting the establishment of public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the country through the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) initiative. This scheme encourages public data office aggregators to deploy public Wi-Fi networks, enabling them to provide public Wi-Fi services through public data offices (PDOs). These PDOs are not required to obtain any licences from the Department of Telecommunications to offer internet services via these public Wi-Fi networks. However, despite the government’s efforts, only approximately 0.5 million public hotspots are currently in operation. This falls significantly short of the targeted 10 million hotspots by the end of 2022 that was envisioned by the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018.
Evolving Wi-Fi standards
Wi-Fi technology relies on a set of technical specifications and protocols known as Wi-Fi standards which are developed and maintained by global organisations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Wi-Fi Alliance. These standards are often upgraded to improve the performance of Wi-Fi networks in terms of data transfer speeds, range and reliability, and to keep up with the growing demands of modern applications and devices. Further, Wi-Fi standards are updated to incorporate stronger encryption and security measures to protect data and user privacy and optimise spectrum usage.
The most recent addition to the series of Wi-Fi standards is IEEE 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, which was announced in 2019. The Wi-Fi 6 standard brought about several key improvements that enhanced both the performance and efficiency of Wi-Fi networks. One of the major innovations in Wi-Fi 6 was the introduction of orthogonal frequency division multiple access, which is a modulation technique that allows a Wi-Fi router to divide a channel into smaller sub-channels, known as resource units. This enables more efficient sharing of the available spectrum among multiple devices simultaneously. Another notable improvement in Wi-Fi 6 was the optimisation of power consumption. This was achieved through Target Wake Time, a feature that allows devices to schedule when they wake up and communicate with the router. Wi-Fi 6 operates in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, providing more flexibility and options for wireless communication. Compared to its predecessor, Wi-Fi 5 (also known as 802.11ac), Wi-Fi 6 can increase its throughput by over 30 per cent. Building upon Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E was introduced in 2020, expanding the capabilities of Wi-Fi 6 into a new frequency band, the 6 GHz spectrum.
The industry is now awaiting the release of Wi-Fi 7 (IEEE 802.11be). Wi-Fi 7 will operate on all three frequency bands—2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 6 GHz—similar to 6E, combined with improved efficiency in other aspects. As per initial reports, Wi-Fi 7 will deliver peak data rates of 46 Gbps, which is about four times faster than Wi-Fi 6 and 6E and five times faster than Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 7 will particularly be well-suited for running time-sensitive networking applications such as augmented reality, virtual reality, 4K and 8K video streaming, automotive, cloud computing, gaming, and video applications, as well as mission-critical and industrial applications.
Emerging opportunities for industry stakeholders
The expanding Wi-Fi market presents several new business opportunities for all industry stakeholders, especially for telecom tower companies. Tower players stand to gain by providing the necessary infrastructure to support Wi-Fi connectivity, including small cell installations and backhaul links. Small cells are essential for improving network capacity and coverage, especially in urban areas where traditional macro towers may not be sufficient to support the burgeoning Wi-Fi networks. Telecom tower companies can lease space on their existing towers or deploy new small cell sites to address this demand. Additionally, tower companies can offer backhaul services to Wi-Fi hotspot providers and network operators, ensuring that data traffic is efficiently transported from access points to the internet backbone. They can also serve as neutral hosts, enabling multiple telecom operators and service providers to share the same Wi-Fi infrastructure. This will promote resource sharing and reduce redundancy, which will be beneficial in densely populated or urban areas where space and resources are limited.
Further, tower companies can support network operators in densifying their Wi-Fi networks by offering co-location services on their existing towers or building new towers and infrastructure in strategic locations. Telecom tower companies can also partner with local bodies and private entities to provide the necessary infrastructure for smart city initiatives, including tower space, small cell deployments, and backhaul connections.
The shift to newer Wi-Fi standards consistently offers opportunities for equipment manufacturers. Companies dedicated to producing routers and other network hardware are in a perpetual process of creating products that are compatible with the most recent Wi-Fi advancements. In the Indian market, the government’s PM-WANI initiative has provided momentum to domestic manufacturing and supply chain sectors, encouraging the production of homegrown Wi-Fi equipment for Wi-Fi hotspots. Additionally, the production-linked incentive scheme for telecom and networking equipment is spurring the domestic manufacturing of telecommunications products, including Wi-Fi devices.
Issues and challenges
Even though Wi-Fi has become integral to digital connectivity, it carries with it a unique array of challenges. The primary concern revolves around the security of Wi-Fi networks, given their vulnerability to breaches when not adequately protected. Unsecured Wi-Fi networks can be exploited by unauthorised users, potentially resulting in data theft or misuse. Furthermore, hackers can establish deceptive access points by mirroring authentic Wi-Fi networks, leading unsuspecting users to connect to these deceitful networks, thereby jeopardising their data.
The other major challenges in Wi-Fi networks include contention loss and co-channel interference. Contention loss arises from diminished network performance due to an influx of clients converging on a single access point (AP), while co-channel interference occurs when two or more APs utilise the same radio frequency channel, thus impeding network performance. Due to these issues, the bandwidth gets congested in crowded areas with many devices connected to the same Wi-Fi network, resulting in slow internet speeds for all users. Ensuring device compatibility with new Wi-Fi standards is another concern. Older devices may not support the latest Wi-Fi standards, which can limit the overall network performance. Further, devices with different Wi-Fi standards often do not work seamlessly together.
Wi-Fi networks offer the advantages of convenience, cost-efficiency, scalability, mobility, high data speeds and versatility, making them a critical technology for modern communication and connectivity needs. While ensuring the security of Wi-Fi networks remains a major concern, industry stakeholders are actively working to establish stronger encryption and data protection protocols.
The introduction of new Wi-Fi standards, coupled with the increasing demand for connectivity in various sectors, posits an ever-expanding market for Wi-Fi technology. Going forward, in addition to continuing to provide high-speed and reliable wireless communication for consumers and businesses, Wi-Fi will be a crucial enabler of next-generation applications and various smart city initiatives.