Need more services like Facebook and Google Wi-Fi to disrupt the Telecom Cartel

Wi-Fi, when implemented well, provides users with predictable connectivity, and has the potential for higher speeds, unlike mobile networks where, even with “3G at 2G prices” claims, users typically still get 2G speeds at 3G prices.

By Nikhil Pahwa

One key positive aspect about Facebook’s Express Wi-Fi is that it is delinked from the now banned FreeBasics service, and users are allowed to access any website and application on the Internet. The danger that FreeBasics posed in India was that the service would have limited users to only a select number of websites which conformed to guidelines imposed on them by the combination of Facebook and Reliance Communications: this would have incentivised using Facebook and its partner services, and created a disincentive for accessing the open web by making it comparatively expensive.

That danger might have remained in the way a telecom operator and a content provider may have partnered: for example, it could have been possible for Google’s free Wi-Fi (with Railtel) to allow access to only Google services when logged into the Wi-Fi with Android devices, while at the same time, theoretically Railtel was making access to the entire Internet for free. Google hasn’t done this, but there is a possibility that platforms, which are out of the jurisdiction of the TRAI, can still limit users by using software, instead of relying on ISPs to do that job for them: think of how, in offices, access to certain websites is blocked for employees.

Thankfully, neither company appears to be doing this, though let’s not forget that Mark Zuckerberg still wants to bring FreeBasics back to India. In a recent conversation with the Verge, he said: “One day, once we’ve shown that it’s a successful program around the world, I hope that we’ll get another chance to come back to India and offer it there, too.”

Wi-Fi is the solution to our Internet woes

Last month, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said their free Wi-fi service in India was getting over 2 million users a month, across 19 railway stations, using as much as 15 times the data they use on mobile networks.

It’s important to remember here none of India’s top wired-only ISPs have even 2 million users. Recently, the TRAI pointed out that India has just 17.16 million wired broadband connections, and 0.55 million fixed wireless (Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, V-Sat etc) connections. As per iPass and Maravedis Rethink, India has 31,518 Wi-Fi hotspots in 2016, while, in 2014, France had 13 million, US had 9.8 million and the UK had 5.6 million hotspots.

Wi-Fi, when implemented well, provides users with predictable connectivity, and has the potential for higher speeds, unlike mobile networks where, even with “3G at 2G prices” claims, users typically still get 2G speeds at 3G prices. As the TRAI mentions in its consultation paper, WiFi could potentially cost as low as Rs 0.02 per MB, while wireless costs Rs 0.23 per MB for telecom providers, and lowered costs will allow more people to come online.

Need Wi-Fi to disrupt the Telecom Cartel

It is not improbable that Telecom operators, many of whom are also large wireline ISPs as well, have chosen not to invest substantially in Wi-Fi and wireline Internet access because the high cost of spectrum creates a unique competitive advantage for them: it restricts competition, which can bring price of calls and Internet access down. The last time cost of calling dropped significantly in India was when Tata Docomo introduced per second billing.

With many telecom operators now becoming defunct, the hold of the remaining key telecom operators, over Internet access, will become stronger. The Indian government's policies in the past have also compounded issues:

  • The demise of Cybercafes: for many of us, our first experience of the Internet was via cybercafes, paying Rs 10 per hour. At one time in the early 2000’s, I’d counted 14 cybercafes near my college. Because of stringent oversight and harassment from the police, as well as rising real estate costs, cybercafes are more or less defunct now.
  • Changes in the ISP license in 2008 killed many small neighborhood ISPs, and as a result, led to a decline in competition for Internet access into users homes.
  • Lack of unbundling of BSNL and MTNL, which forces each new ISP to lay out new wires into homes for Internet provisioning, instead of a common wire, and options for multiple service providers.

The opportunity now lies in doing what Facebook and Google are doing with Wi-Fi in India. The Wi-Fi that Facebook is providing only relies on BSNL for backhaul: they’re putting up hotspots and allowing kirana stores to sell recharge cards for Internet access. At best, Google has invested in routers and optimised the access point rollout for optimal performance, but the connectivity belongs to Railtel. We need more of this: more ISPs, more wires carrying Internet traffic, more hotspots. Just as the idea behind Payments Banks and business correspondents appears to be to convert every kirana store into an ATM, we should allow every kirana store to provide Wi-Fi. Let a million Wi-Fi hotspots come up across India.

P.s.: please consider responding to the TRAI’s consultation paper on Wi-Fi access, here.

Nikhil Pahwa is the founder of MediaNama and the cofounder of SaveTheInternet.in

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