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Public Wi-Fi hotspots–a potential solution to a balanced digital growth in India

With a telecom subscriber base of 1 billion+ and wireless data consumption per user one of the highest in the world, India is facing a digital tsunami–but in terms of infrastructure readiness, we still have a long way to go. Public Wi-fi can be a missing piece in the puzzle to address the issues of wireless network congestion as well as ensure a balanced and inclusive growth.

Digital Growth
India has been experiencing substantial increase in the data consumption, where total data traffic has increased by 44 times over the last four years. Monthly data usage per user has increased almost 14 times since 2015, as the prices for wireless data fell from `226/GB in 2015 to around `7/GB in 2019.

This digital growth can have a lot of direct and indirect benefits to the economy–according to World Bank, a 10 percent increase in the internet user base can grow a country’s GDP by 1.4 percent. An ICRIER BIF study suggests that, 10 percent increase in India’s mobile internet traffic can potentially deliver a 1.3 percent increase in India’s GDP, whilst an increase of 10 percent in total internet traffic (mobile + fixed) can lead to additional GDP growth of 3.3 percent. This can definitely result in a much-needed push to the economy.

Readiness of India Inc
Unfortunately, India Inc. is not completely ready for this opportunity–the telecom networks are clogged due to this tremendous uptick in the data demand, thus resulting in a poor service quality. India has been ranked 128th for mobile broadband and 66th for fixed broadband speeds in January 2020. Considering this there is a need to explore alternative solutions to alleviate congestion from wireless networks and enhance service quality– one of which could be Public WiFi hotspots–a solution widely explored across the globe. Public WiFi can also be a means to achieve an inclusive and balanced digital growth in rural and deep rural areas where the business case of deploying wireless and wireline broadband networks by private entities is limited.

The estimated number of public WiFi hotspots in India in 2019 were around 0.35 million, while National Digital Communication Policy (NDCP) 2018 had an ambitious target of 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022– implying that a lot needs to be done in the future.

India has a public Wi-Fi hotspot per 39,723 people, the same number was estimated to be 234 for China and     3 for France. The world is moving toward an ideal of 1 hotspot for every 20 people, which means India would need around 65 million hotspots in the coming years.

Movement in the right direction and benefits for all stakeholders
India Inc. is making efforts to deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots. TRAI in 2018 proposed the development of the Wi-Fi Access Network (WANI) architecture, a single interoperable network for the provision of internet and Wi-Fi connectivity to all Indians and  the  cornerstone  of India’s New Digital Communications Strategy (2018-2022). There have been public-private partnerships such as partnership between RailTel, Indian Railways and Google, to offer public Wi-Fi in train stations. The project has covered around 400 stations. Other large- scale public Wi-Fi rollouts by private entities are also under way, with Jio expected to rollout a total of 1 million hotspots soon.

The scale of the Google/RailTel project, which had around 7.6 million monthly active Wi-Fi users in 2018, makes it a fascinating proof of concept and demonstrates that fast and affordable public Wi-Fi can succeed in bringing more people online. A typical user consumed around 300MB of data in 30 minutes, with 1.5 percent of the daily users being the first-time users. Such Public Wi-Fi projects were estimated to result in an upliftment of India’s GDP by USD 11.6 billion in 2019 (c. USD 21 billion cumulatively from 2017-19).

20 percent of these public Wi-Fi users were willing to pay more for better mobile broadband (outside train stations) as a result of experiencing a real fast broadband service on Wi-Fi. An additional 14 percent of the users were willing to upgrade their existing smartphones after experiencing high-speed Wi-Fi. This means that around 100 million people are willing to spend an additional USD2 to 3 billion per year on handsets and cellular mobile broadband services as a result of experiencing fast broadband on public Wi-Fi. Additionally, this means less congestion in the regular networks, as some of the cellular traffic will be offloaded on these public Wi-Fis.

This means all the stakeholders have something to  gain from public Wi-Fis-telecom operators, broadband providers and handset manufacturers can earn additional business, while it helps the government to push its broader ambition for Digital India.

Way forward
Public Wi-Fi hotspots offer several benefits to the economy. In order for these benefits to be realised, however, significant barriers must be surmounted.

The lack of supporting infrastructure, including backhaul, limits the deployment of public Wi-Fi but is being proactively addressed (such as, through nationwide fibre deployment by BharatNet and  private  players  RJio), but much more could be done around know-your-customer regulations, payments, and partnerships/standards.Spectrum is a key  challenge  as well-Unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum has been a major driver of Wi-Fi ecosystem development across the world, but India severely lags in availability of unlicensed spectrum  airwaves  for  Wi- Fi propagation. De-licensing of 5.1–5.3 GHz and 5.7– 5.8GHz bands will ensure greater availability of Wi-Fi spectrum for traditional offloading in urban area and hotspot deployment in rural areas, and will relieve congestion in the 2.4GHz band which is currently the de-facto band for Wi-Fi deployment.

The major challenge is economic though–currently the Internet service providers have to bear all the costs of Wi-Fi deployment, which is not economically viable for them unless done at a huge scale. Active involvement of telcos and OEM manufacturers in deployment of these Wi-Fis, partnerships with venue providers and sachet pricing of the Wi-Fi services can be the way to go forward to address these economic concerns.

In summary, Public Wi-Fi can lead to an oasis for the struggling telecom sector and Digital India ambition of the government–it is a bus that India Inc. cannot afford to miss!