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Digital India 2.0

Interoperable Wi-Fi hotspots are a crucial step forward in creating a truly connected nation

The Department of Telecom’s move to free up additional spectrum for Wi-Fi operations augurs well for the growth of digital services in the country. This, combined with the plan to roll out one million interoperable Wi-Fi hotspots by 2019 will finally move the needle in putting India at par with global standards in terms of public internet access. Globally, there is one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 150 people on an average. India should have had around eight million hotspots given the size of its population. However, the total number of hotspots in India is only 31,500. This is despite the fact that India has one of the largest cellular networks in the world. Telecom companies have hitherto shied away from creating public Wi-Fi access models primarily fearing cannibalisation of their core business.

But with data consumption growing at a rapid pace, there will soon come a time when cellular networks alone will not be able to cater to the demand. It is projected that the monthly data usage per smartphone in India will increase from 5.7 GB in 2017 to 13.7 GB by 2023. To support this growth, telecom companies will need to create a mesh network wherein traditional cellular infrastructure is backed up by optical fibre cables and public Wi-Fi access points. Wi-Fi services typically run on unlicenced spectrum bands which can be accessed by the operators freely without having to buy it through expensive auction. This helps them to cheaply offload a lot of data traffic on Wi-Fi hotspots releasing the capacity on traditional cellular networks for mission critical applications. Globally, there has been a 568 per cent increase in the number of hotspots but in India, the growth is just 12 per cent.

The decision to free up 605 MHz of spectrum in the 5 GHz frequency band has increased the bandwidth availability for Wi-Fi services by more than ten times the existing capacity. Making the proposed one million Wi-Fi hotspots to be created interoperable will allow users to hop from one Wi-Fi network to another seamlessly, without having to sign-in each time. Currently, when a user wants to use a Wi-Fi network, there are multiple entry barriers. First, the handover from mobile network to the Wi-Fi coverage is not seamless. Each time a user moves from a cellular network to Wi-Fi network, there is a break in the internet access. Second, if the Wi-Fi network is managed by an operator that is different from the user’s mobile operator, the user has to sign in to access the service. Under an interoperable network, these issues are sorted out.

Policymakers should now focus on scaling up such efforts by enabling more participants to roll out Wi-Fi infrastructure. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s suggestion to allow smaller players, kirana stores and other vendors to set up Public Data Offices should be implemented without delay. This may do for data what PCOs did for long-distance telephony. – The Hindu Business Line

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