The Key Role Of Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi can play a key role in driving ubiquitous connectivity and digital inclusion in India, as explored in a recently published Analysys Mason study , ‘Accelerating connectivity through public Wi-Fi: Early lessons from the railway Wi-Fi project’. Despite fast increases in number of people connected (316 million at the end of 2017, compared to 200 million the previous year), mobile broadband penetration in India stood at only 31% at the end of 2017, still significantly behind many of India’s peers. The report, prepared through the lens of Google and RailTel Public Wi-Fi project, support the Government’s ambition under the draft NDCP to reach 5 million access points in 2020 and 10 million in 2022, to provide an all-pervasive coverage and internet connectivity, for 600 million Indians.

The report further outlines an opportunity to develop a wider connectivity ecosystem with Public Wi-Fi as a key component, which can not only benefit users and wireless ISPs, but also telecom service providers, handset manufacturers and venue owners. TSPs in particular can benefit by monetising demand for faster mobile broadband and higher data volumes on their networks, as people get used to fast speeds and ubiquitous connectivity. The report indicates that Public Wi-Fi will connect 40 million new users to the Internet by 2019 and that around 100 million people would be willing to spend an additional USD 2 to 3 billion per year on handsets and a similar amount on cellular mobile broadband services, as a result of experiencing fast broadband on public Wi-Fi. In addition to driving productivity improvements from high speed Wi-Fi for the overall economy, public Wi-Fi can also translate into tangible benefits to GDP, by around USD20 billion between 2017-19 and at least USD10 billion per annum thereafter.

David Abecassis, Partner at Analysys Mason, said, “In the last few years, India has made significant progress in driving mobile data usage, thanks to improved networks, and low cost data. But to really achieve the connected India vision, India will need to further invest in developing public Wi-Fi as a complement to mobile and fibre broadband. Google and RailWire project to deploy high speed Wi-Fi across 400 stations has shown that there was a technical and operational solution to providing high-quality public Wi-Fi to millions of Indians nationwide, on affordable terms. The success of this rollout and Reliance Jio’s 80,000 public Wi-Fi access points as of mid-2017 provide valuable insights in further developing public Wi-Fi as a service that can truly achieve the Digital India vision.”

  1. Suri, Director, Partnership, India, Next Billion Users, Google India, said, “Our partnership with RailTel to bring high speed connectivity to millions of Indians across 400 train station, today stands as a lighthouse project for the industry and underscores the importance of investing in public Wi-Fi as a crucial step in getting high quality internet to everyone in India. This is just the beginning of a journey that will change India’s access story and the Analysys Mason Report outlines some very important insights that can enable ISPs and TSPs to think in this direction. Together we have a lot of work to do to improve access and connectivity in the country.”

The report further highlights that the Investment in public Wi-Fi can further unlock an opportunity for Mobile operators to offload excess data traffic from cellular networks, and deploy advanced technologies such as Hotspot 2.0 for ensuring interoperable roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi.

15% Wi-Fi users

15% of Google Wi-Fi users, after getting a taste of high-speed internet access, are willing to get a 4G SIM to continue to have that access, the report said. Aside from this, the report points out these stats on Google Station’s users:

  • Wi-Fi usage inside stations in a 30-minute duration is thrice as much as the amount of data the average 3G subscriber uses in a whole day. Here’s 3G usage (throughout the day) compared with Google Station (30-minute duration), and Jio 4G usage (throughout the day):
  • First-time internet users spend nearly half their time on the internet in train stations with Wi-Fi. On average, users spend 68% of their time in stations connected to Wi-Fi.
  • Nearly three-fourths of Wi-Fi users use social media or ‘evolved productivity’ (email, news, etc). 35% watch video and other ‘rich media’. The report cites a Cisco estimate that video’s share of internet traffic will be a larger slice than it is in the US right now in 2021, at over 75%.
  • Nearly one-fourth of users are willing to pay for Wi-Fi, while less than a fifth are willing to spend time filling out their name, email address, and so on to do so. But people aren’t willing to pay that much — 40% of users willing to pay prefer paying ₹5 for 30 minutes, while just 5% are willing to pay ₹40.
  • While urban areas are fully covered by 4G (“Mobile Broadband” [MBB]), rural areas still only have half as much coverage. This is where Wi-Fi has more potential and an accessibility advantage.
  • Rolling out Wi-Fi works out 30% cheaper per user than traditional mobile networks.

 

Challenge

As the report points out, there are high regulatory and monetary costs associated with running a Wi-Fi hotspot in India. TRAI has been workshopping its Aadhaar login-based Wi-Fi hotspot architecture. Regulatory speaking, operators need special permission to resell bandwidth and have to verify the identity — via SMS-based one-time passcodes — of every user who signs up on the network. This essentially means that only large conglomerates, established telcos and government organizations are in a position to set hotspots up. TRAI’s Aadhaar-based architecture aims to resolve this scarcity of hotspots by standardising the captive portal and authentication side of things. This also accommodates the ‘security concerns’ usually displayed by government agencies whenever the prospect of widely available Wi-Fi hotspots is raised. But as 4G gets cheaper in the wake of Jio, its unclear how much momentum Wi-Fi hotspots can gain to address the data needs Google’s report outlines.

Telecom companies opposed

Telecom companies have asked the government to reject the regulator’s proposal to allow unlicensed entities to establish affordable Wi-Fi networks in public places, saying such a move would be illegal. “TRAI’s recommendations, if implemented, will be in conflict with the existing licensing framework, and more importantly, establishing public Wi-Fi networks without a licence would be illegal and in violation of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885,” Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, said in a letter dated June 8 to telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan.

Implementation of TRAI’s recommendations, COAI said, would “adversely affect the level playing field” as licensed operators pay levies such as licence fees, spectrum usage charges and ensure adherence to regulatory and security-related requirements. “Allowing the same activity to be performed by an unlicensed entity would give it unfair advantage and lead to revenue losses for the financially stressed licensed operators,” COAI said in its letter to Sundararajan.

The government wants to give public Wi-Fi a big push ahead of next year’s general election, sparking the interest of global giants Google and Facebook — which offer Wi-Fi services in India — and telecom companies alike. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is mulling light-touch licensing for those that register to offer such services, said people with knowledge of the matter. It may even allow unlicensed entities that may not have to share revenue with the government but would need to follow rules on security, monitoring and lawful interception among others. Licensed telcos and internet providers need to share revenue.

Telecom companies are united, for once, in opposition to the plan on the grounds that the move would disrupt a level-playing field and violate current law. The older telcos are typically ranged against new entrant Reliance Jio Infocomm. The tussle comes as the government, at its highest levels, is keen on making public Wi-Fi an election plank as an extension of Digital India and a symbol of its success, say industry insiders. To that end, DoT is considering ways to make the programme attractive for all stakeholders in a bid to rapidly roll out hotspots–500,000 across the country by the end of 2018, with at least one in every village in India.

“One section of thought is that the PDOAs (public data office aggregators) will have to follow all terms and conditions that licensees follow, except the licence fee and revenue share part, under light-touch licensing,” a senior department official said. “So, they will have to invest in ensuring that they meet the norms, especially those related to security, monitoring and interception. This will ensure that public Wi-Fi hotspots proliferate and create employment for people.”

The revenue share or commercial agreement between the PDOs (public data offices) and PDOAs is also likely to be kept outside the purview of DoT. PDOAs will enrol a number of small entities to function as public data offices (PDOs) which act as hotspots–akin to the public call offices (PCOs) of old–providing last-mile Wi-Fi to customers. Typically, Google or Facebook, which have their own Wi-Fi platforms and are looking at expanding their services in India, would be keen to act as PDOAs, executives said.

Google and Facebook offer their own Wi-Fi services in parts of the country through Station and Express Wi-Fi, respectively. While Google did not comment, sources said the US company is “waiting and watching” for the government to lay down a clear architecture. It already offers Wi-Fi services at 400 railway stations through its partnership with RailTel besides 150 Google Stations in Pune and has said it wants to expand its services across the country. Facebook has partnered with Bharti Airtel to deploy 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country to offer affordable internet services through its Express Wi-Fi platform. It is also working with internet service providers (ISPs) and over 500 local entrepreneur-retailers in Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya to commercially offer the service through 700 hotspots, and continues to explore more avenues for expansion.

A project to expand Wi-Fi use by offering cheap internet connectivity to tier-II and III towns would be right up the alley of global giants that have implemented these programmes worldwide, said industry insiders. But telcos are opposed to any move to allow unlicensed players to become PDOAs, or the aggregator – which will typically give connectivity to a few thousand Wi-Fi hotspots or PDOs and generate revenue – since carriers will be asked to share that revenue with the government as per existing rules. This will put them at a disadvantage against unlicensed PDOAs that won’t have to do so if the plan goes ahead.

“Allowing the same activity to be performed by an unlicensed entity would tilt the level playing field, as the same would give unfair Telcos oppose govt wooing unlicensed entities for Wi-Fi advantage to unlicensed entities and would thus lead to loss of revenue to licensed operators who are under the licensing framework and are going through a phase of severe financial stress,” lobby group Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said in a recent communication to DoT. The association added that all its members supported this view. Some of its members said such a move by DoT was sure to be challenged in court. “Establishing public Wi-Fi networks without licence will be illegal being in violation of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885,” COAI said, adding that any decision that DoT takes on the issue should be within the legal framework and consistent with the regulatory regime.

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