Innumerable are the reports from scholars and researchers about the significant adverse impact of the pandemic on adequate quality access to internet connectivity and digital services. The divide in net connectivity has been particularly serious in the areas of access to education and healthcare by the weaker sections of society. While it is a global problem, it is not just that the less affluent cannot afford a laptop or a smartphone. Even if they were provided free smartphones and requested to study online or access health care online, many would not be able to do so. This is especially true in the rural and suburban areas, where they would either not have the mobile network coverage or cannot afford the mobile tariffs. This is where PM Wani-based public Wi-Fi hotspots come in as the Messiah who delivers affordable connectivity to the masses. The unique PM Wani architecture renders Wi-Fi usage extremely customer-friendly, since one can go from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another without the hassle and inconvenience of repeated authentication and payment.
Globally, there is an abundant availability of public Wi-Fi hotspots. As of March 2020, there were a total of 432.5 million hotspots globally, and that number is expected to be about 542 million by the end of 2021. Region-wise, it is expected that by the end of 2021, China would have 160 million, North America 50 million, and Western Europe (including UK) 125 million. India is surprisingly far behind, with less than 0.5 million!
The implications of the above for India, with our high digital ambitions, are quite serious. Without the capacity available from Wi-Fi hotspots, one cannot hope to cope with the humongous data explosion that is continually rising in intensity and not showing any signs of ebbing. The immediate impact of this on broadband quality, and the experienced speeds would plummet. For example, in India, even with 4G LTE, mobile broadband speeds are only about ⅓ of the global norms. Obviously, the same effect would occur with 5G when we introduce it. Thus, India is not able to reap the full benefits of all the modern, high speed, technologies.
It used to be felt in some quarters till recently that, in view of attractive mobile pricing since end-2016, we do not need the public Wi-Fi option. This was very fallacious thinking. While Indian mobile tariffs were extremely low till about two years ago, it is well accepted by everyone, including the telcos themselves, that that was not at all realistic or sustainable. The tariffs have been steadily rising since then, and have increased by around 30 percent or more. This has been absolutely necessary to improve the economic viability of the networks. In fact, the financial stress in the mobile companies became a matter of national concern generally because it was not only harming employment and growth, but also endangering the situation as regards non-performing assets (NPAs) of major public sector banks. The government had to recently come out with a Stage 1 Relief Package, and is contemplating more in a second stage. Meanwhile, the mobile tariffs are also continuing to rise in order that the companies achieve a state of adequate financial health. Experts opine that to bring in 5G and have a healthy sectoral growth, consumer mobile tariffs need to rise another 40-50 percent.
In view of the above, it can well be appreciated that mobile broadband tariffs would remain unaffordable for citizens at the bottom of the pyramid. It is clear that, in the near future, we need to ensure priority measures to help the large, unconnected population of India have access to affordable broadband to improve their lives. This is precisely where public Wi-Fi hotspots would help provide an affordable way of accessing the net, but, of course, without the added frill of mobility that mobile broadband would provide. Price-sensitive rural citizens would find it most difficult to enter Digital India without the UPI of connectivity – the PM Wani platform of public Wi-Fi.
The necessity of having an abundant availability of public Wi-Fi hotspots is not merely for reasons of affordability. They are also essential from the point of view of broadband quality. This is one of the reasons that our mobile broadband speeds are one-fourth to one-third of our global peers. While the importance of mobile networks is undoubtedly very high, it is well known that mobile networks are invariably constrained not only for satisfactory handling of heavy data downloads and uploads for reasons of mobile spectrum being limited, but also for the inevitable patchy coverage, especially inside buildings. Wi-Fi hotspots are unbeatable for in-building coverage and provide high data capacity to support and sustain mobile networks to ensure the capacity, speed, and quality of broadband services.
It is of paramount importance that no one is left behind when we march aggressively forward toward Digital India. Big or small, rich or poor – all require good broadband connectivity for everyday living and working. Vani is the Hindi word for ‘voice’ and appropriately, PM Wani is not only a great leveler but also the rising voice of the people at the bottom of the pyramid…