Hemant UpadhyayDec 18, 2020 10:29:50 IST
The Union Cabinet, on 9 December, approved the establishment of public Wi-Fi networks across the country. It was really heartening to see that most of the suggestions given (by the writer of this column) to the TRAI during the consultation process initiated in 2016, were heeded. Public WiFi will be provided through Public Data Offices (PDOs) via a Central government scheme called the Prime Minister’s Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI).
Digitisation in India is now moving at a rapid pace. As is being observed for the last 2-3 years, data consumption is growing at a very fast pace – India consumed 12 GB data per person per month on an average in 2019, the highest consumption globally, and this is expected to double over the next five years. Demand growth is equally fast-paced in rural as well as urban areas, fuelled by various government initiatives for entertainment, information, educational and commercial needs – what can be called “ease of living needs”.
But then, in just six years, the share of the population using the internet grew by 24 percentage points to 34 percent in 2017. There were about 34 internet subscribers per 100 people in India in 2017, which grew by 20 percentage points by the end of 2019 to about 54 internet subscribers per 100 people. Globally, 50 percent of people used the internet in 2017. In China, this is relatively low at 54 percent. In absolute terms, there were 719 million internet subscribers in India by the end of 2019. Nationally, there are 106 internet subscribers per 100 people in urban areas compared to just 30 in rural areas.
Even as the number of internet users has been growing rapidly, there is still a large population with no access to the internet – particularly in rural areas, less-developed states and in poorer households. It is believed that data consumption as well as availability is hampered by the lack of investments by TSPs / ISPs in low density and low-paying-capacity rural or semi-urban areas. On the one hand, TSPs/ISPs are reluctant to serve these low-density non-remunerative areas, while on the other hand we have infrastructure created by RailTel, NOFN, GAIL etc. which remains highly underutilised. According to TRAI, "providing carrier-grade Wi-Fi is a challenge due to inadequacy of associated infrastructure such as power availability, operating conditions, and seamless hand-offs which needs continuous large investments by service providers."
Public Wi-Fi hotspots have been found to be an excellent cost-effective solution in this scenario by many countries, especially with a dispersed population. Public Wi-Fi hotspots could be a solution in the Indian scenario as well, which could address the issue of call drops, data disconnect, slow speed and the degrading quality of service due to over-loading of existing capacity, which results in users experiencing 2G speeds on 3G and 4G connections. For instance, sharing of Wi-Fi infrastructure can facilitate offloading of traffic on to Wi-Fi networks, according to TRAI, thereby easing network congestion/overload on mobile networks in high-density public footfall areas.
Second, public Wi-Fi could also help reduce the digital divide. The biggest gain, I think, is the financial inclusion of the un-banked populace. A report by Analysys Mason, commissioned by Google, notes that a successful public Wi-Fi market in India could see over 600 million people experiencing a public Wi-Fi service. Today, both State and Central Governments are heavily investing in digitising all their services. The digital application eco-system is more than ready to serve users, AND, the users are eager to go digital. The government’s Common Service Centres (CSCs) and e-governance and electronic delivery of services (digital payments, Aadhar) will also get a boost with public Wi-Fi. It is ready to explode provided:
- Seamless connectivity is ensured
- It is affordable both in terms of bandwidth as well as devices, and
- Eco-system for complaint redressal is reliable, trustworthy and transparent
- Privacy issues are reliably addressed
Here we need to appreciate that given low literacy in rural or semi-urban areas and their need for comfort in face-to-face exchange, public Wi-Fi will be of great help in bringing these users into the digital world.
Third, deployment of Wi-Fi could be a cheaper option compared to that of 3G or 4G networks in places that already have fibre access for backhaul. It is a fact that existing TSPs/ISPs are reluctant to invest areas which they find to be commercially unviable.
Fourth, it will vastly improve utilisation of the large and high-capacity fibre network created by Bharat Broadband Network (BBN), RailTel, GAIL etc. BBN (created through NOFN investing more than Rs. 110 Bn) user numbers for 2018-19 were a mere 11.92 lakh, with monthly data usage at 69,409 gigabytes, not even 1 percent of capacity utilisation.
Fifth, it will provide a ready-made opportunity for the creation of intra-net groups within a locality and of similar interests and concerns. This will not only improve communication within communities, it will throw-up many commercial opportunities for SHGs (Self Help Groups), household businesses, artisans, farmers and farm trade. Additionally, it will improve utilisation of the broadband infrastructure without burdening the fibre backbone.
But the success of public Wi-Fi hinges on a robust management model which addresses privacy and security of the data, especially for a group of users who are relatively less literate and need extra protection. Since user data is being handled by multiple agencies – app providers, PDOAs, PDOs, DoT and TSPs/ISPs, at every stage user data safe-handling protocols with respect to storage, sharing, encryption and grievance redressal must be well-documented and enforced. Consumer education and hand-holding has to be part of the overall deployment strategy to build trust and acceptability.
In conclusion, PM- WANI is the right tool to achieve the objectives of creating millions of inter-operable Wi-Fi Hotspots in the country and democratising content distribution and broadband access to millions at affordable rates, thereby facilitating financial inclusion of the un-banked populace – the biggest gain, according to me. This can be the UPI of connectivity services, as former TRAI chief RS Sharma tweeted provided:
- It is reliable and consistent with delivering promised quality and quantity
- An ecosystem is developed to provide seamless billing and connectivity both in terms of bandwidth and devices
- It is affordable both in terms of bandwidth and devices with trustworthy billing system
- Data privacy issues are reliably addressed with adequate safeguards commensurate with the requirements of the target users
- A robust and easy to use grievance redressal system with fast resolution without repeated follow-up
( The author is an Advisor-IT, Telecom & Projects, Consumer Voice)
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