Natraj Akella
Vice President-Wi-Fi Services,
Tata Teleservices Limited

Public Wi-Fi in India Set to Scale up

Wi-Fi is gradually becoming an intrinsic part of our lives. Be it at home, travelling between client meetings, at hotels, on a business trip or even in-flight, working professionals are increasingly expected to always remain connected. More so, the millennials, larger proportion of the Internet users, for whom no experience is fully consummated unless it can be shared in real time on social networks, are constantly looking to validate and personalize their experiences by sharing, exchanging, and commenting on them; for them Wi-Fi represents an ideal medium of choice, and Wi-Fi hotspots at high-footfall areas, is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Come 2019 and 60 percent of mobile data will travel over Wi-Fi. Looking at the growth of Wi-Fi in evolved markets and a rising percentage of wireless data travelling over the unlicensed band technology, Wi-Fi roaming on a grand scale is set to be the order of the day.

Until sometime ago, it was largely believed that 4G would make Wi-Fi obsolete. However, its importance has only increased due to an explosion of higher-consumption devices and the need to stay connected. Wi-Fi is now evolving into a carrier-grade service that complements and supplements the cellular networks and thus enriches the overall mobile data experience. Simply put, cellular (3G/LTE) provides mobility and Wi-Fi addresses localized high data-rate access. More importantly, using cellular and Wi-Fi together in a mobile device has now become a customer expectation. Not only should they work together, but they should be enabled to work together seamlessly at the switch of a button.

In next three years, the 500 million mobile subscribers will touch around 1.3 billion and that would be over 90 percent of our country’s total population at that point. Keeping that in perspective, the availability of Wi-Fi hotspots in India is not equally encouraging. Compared to the global average of one Wi-Fi hotspot per 150 people, India has only one Wi-Fi for 1000 people. To match up to this, an additional 800,000 hotspots need to be deployed.

Public Wi-Fi access is a crucial step toward digitization. With most of mobile traffic either originating or terminating indoors today, Wi-Fi is considered as a robust access technology for mobile data offload. A key requirement in providing reliable, consistent, and high-speed public Wi-Fi service is good bandwidth. This can be achieved by establishing a strong backbone of network and infrastructure that not only supports existing requirements but has provisions of future scalability. The last-mile fiber availability in our country also needs to go up including in remote and far flung areas.

Primarily, there are two most important pre-requisites in providing public Wi-Fi services. Firstly, the ease of connection, i.e., the number of steps that a customer must take to connect to Wi-Fi. Secondly, and more importantly, the quality of service. As for QoS, throughput is one of the main measures of QoS in addition to latency and jitter. The throughput speed must be of a certain minimum threshold level to satisfy customers, which can be provided only through a fixed-line backhaul or fiber backhaul. Ultimately the key differentiator would be the kind of sustained experience that operators can provide for users.

Over the next couple of years, commercial Wi-Fi would see moderate growth and globally the number of hotspots will cross the 300-million mark from the present 47 million. At the same time, the Indian Wi-Fi market is positioned to grow 7 times faster than the global Wi-Fi market. Setting aside the economic aspects, operators are slowly beginning to realize and seize the opportunities that public Wi-Fi as a technology offers them, especially with the aim to improve customer experience. Most operators consider Wi-Fi hotspots as very important and even crucial in terms of the customer experience and in terms of reducing the load on the mobile broadband networks and providing value-added services.

Given the low Internet penetration, affordability of smartphones, high spectrum charges, and issues around fiber rollout, Wi-Fi will continue to play a pivotal role in powering the aspirations of millions of natives in Digital India.

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