Access to digital services is a key predictor and enabler of the success of nations. It offers to users, industry, the government and every sector of the economy unprecedent productivity gains that catalyze growth through local economies.
Apart from the well-chronicled studies, that have measured the impact of access to broadband on GDP, further studies have indicated that this impact is much higher where the connectivity is poor making it all the more important in rural India. India’s National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 highlights the importance of broadband and prescribes novel targets & milestones that must be achieved for India to become truly digital, which would in turn enable the development of a USD 5 trillion economy.
While mobile broadband has grown spectacularly in India, wired broadband lags far behind. Considering the huge debt, the telecom players barring one have piled up, it may be difficult to even sustain the current mobile data rates. We have already seen that the rates are moving north, although slowly so far. Various factors have led to a situation where Indian telecom market appears to be headed toward an oligopoly in the best case and a duopoly in worst case scenario. This does not augur well for such a large and diversified country like ours which is seeking digitalization to pivot itself.
The internet has tremendous ability to democratize data and information. But as recently seen all over the world, its influence in spreading disinformation cannot be understated. Its in our national interest, not only to keep the internet open but also ensure there is enough diversity in the networks delivering the internet. A thriving Wi-Fi ecosystem can act as a good foil to the increasing consolidation in the telecom industry.
Wired connectivity to homes remains around 20 million and India lags even when compared to other emerging economies. Considering the fixed cost of wiring up homes and the purchasing power limitations among urban poor and rural India the wired broadband adoption will be slow, depriving majority of Indians the experience of high-speed internet. Wi-Fi is a unique technology in which the benefits of wired broadband such as high- speed experience and unlimited plans can be shared and delivered to masses who cannot afford home broadband. Fiber fed Wi-Fi can provide unmatched experience and the cost of delivery can remain low. It may not be appropriate to compare mobile data services with Wi-Fi as the products are entirely different. But in terms of utility for the common man the difference may not be much as there are very few applications which are useful while we are in motion. The common man needs relative ubiquity and portability for bulk of his data requirements. Wi-Fi ecosystem can provide bulk data service at a lower cost point and needs to be nurtured as a national strategy for connectivity apart from the mobile data service provided by various telecom companies. The cost of delivery of mobile data because of the complex financial engineering, technology refresh, spectrum costs etc., cannot be accurately determined. Several studies including the TRAI report have pegged the actual cost of delivery of data will be significantly higher. Hence, even in mature markets like Europe and North America there is renewed interest in Public Wi-Fi.
The biggest problem with Wi-Fi however is the business model. People expect it to be free which is not sustainable. The captive portal advertising does not cover a fraction of the cost to deliver. Paid models have challenges of portability, ubiquity, payment friction etc. The WANI model proposed by TRAI is an interesting and promising concept which addresses the issues of improving the customer experience as well as providing the necessary handles to enable the Wi-Fi service provider to be sustainable. The niggling details on license compliance etc., can be worked out if there is visibility of the impact that is possible.
It could be broadband’s UPI moment where it will be possible to create an open and interoperable system which can proliferate Wi-Fi and enable a grassroots movement to provide data access. It would then be possible to aggregate the various streams of revenue to become sustainable. In rural and remote locations USOF sponsorship of Wi-Fi access to target beneficiaries like students, women etc, will help create demand and create a viral spread of Wi-Fi businesses, Digital technology will ensure that the sponsorship reaches the right beneficiaries and the USOF fund is used only after the actual usage of data by the beneficiary is ensured. This sponsorship will be akin to DBT (Direct Beneficiary Transfer) for Telecom inclusion.
Ministry of Railways and RailTel have taken it as a mission to create a digital inclusion platform and have created one of the world’s largest Wi-Fi network in over 5700 stations and over a million login’s every day. Proof that people value the Wi-Fi experience is evident from the fact that even at the time when mobile broadband was made free for a few months by a leading mobile operator, it did not impact the station Wi-Fi logins.
RailTel has this unique experience where we have invested in Wi-Fi and have also have a decade of experience in running a collaborative broadband delivery model called RailWire which has connected over 2 lakh FTTH homes and offices. As WANI is now slowed down because of the light license/registration requirement we can work around this situation if a PSU like RailTel or BSNL can anchor the WANI compliance requirements centrally and extend license cover to Wi-Fi entrepreneurs. The Central Infrastructure for compliance can be sponsored from USOF fund. India’s strength of agile small ICT companies can create a competitive ecosystem of applications within the framework of WANI, benefitting the
Wi-Fi entrepreneurs as well as end subscribers. The biggest gain would be for BSNL’s land line service which, because of its sheer reach can rapidly help scale the Wi-Fi ecosystem. If we can tweak the model correctly it can become viral, where even the teashops and kirana stores can provide Wi-Fi and digital services. RailTel will be more than keen to bring its experience to make the WANI vision a reality and contribute to a thriving sustainable