The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, TRAI, has announced plans to set up a hotspot WiFi network across the country. The aim is to provide Internet connectivity at significantly cheaper rates than current mobile networks. As per reports, the telecom governing body is currently working on a pilot project to check the plan’s feasibility.
As part of the initiative, the TRAI will be collaborating with existing telecom companies and internet data providers to set up “pay-as-you-go” public data offices (PDOs) in different parts of the country.
The project is intended to bring broadband connectivity to price-sensitive consumers in Tier I and Tier II cities as well as rural areas. According to sources, the PDOs will be offering small-sized data packs at under 2 paise per MB. In comparison, existing mobile network providers like Vodafone, Airtel, and Reliance charge upwards of 23 paise per MB, which is around ten times the cost of the TRAI’s proposed WiFi plan. It even claims to be cheaper than the consumer-friendly Reliance Jio, which currently offers 4G data at 5 paise per MB.
The centre of the hotspot network will be an open architecture-based WiFi Access Network Interface (WANI), whose design has already been unveiled by the TRAI. Last week, the statutory telecommunications authority invited Internet companies, software and hardware providers, and app developers to participate in the pilot project.
As per officials, these companies will help build the WiFi hotspot network and will also serve as PDOs. So far, the TRAI has been approached by several tech startups interested in joining the initiative. Commenting on the subject, TRAI’s spokesperson stated, “The TRAI is overwhelmed with the response received from a number of startup companies for participating in a pilot for a nationwide WiFi network.”
The ultimate goal is to develop a pervasive, technologically-sound, WiFi hotspot network that will help enhance data consumption among India’s price-sensitive population. The WANI framework could also enable enterprises, non-profit organisations, shops and proprietorships to establish a paid, easy-access, public WiFi point. Users will be able to access the network via a simple, one-click authentication. After paying the specified amount, they will be able to connect up to two devices during a single session.
In a 2016 consultation paper titled “Proliferation of Broadband through public WiFi Network,” the TRAI stated, “Wi-Fi is a complimentary, not a competing technology to LTE. Public hotspots hold an important place in the last-mile delivery of broadband to users… [It would enable] unbundling authentication, payment, and accounting (elements) from the hardware and software running on WiFi access point.”
The TRAI is also looking to join hands with telecommunications and consumer Internet providers, payment companies and device manufacturers to create a robust hotspot network that will be able to support high usage volumes.
India’s Growing Internet Population
The country’s Internet market is undergoing phenomenal growth, due to increased availability of technologies like broadband, smartphones, tablets, and high-speed mobile data. According to a 2016 study by Groupe Speciale Mobile (GSM) Association, India’s mobile using population is expected to cross the 1 Bn mark by 2020. According to a study by research firm IMRB International, the number of Internet users in India is currently around 450 Mn – 465 Mn, which is a 4%-8% increase from the reported 432 Mn in December 2016.
Until recently, high-speed Internet connectivity was expensive and remained exclusive to metros and a few big cities. The arrival of Jio’s nationwide network, however, has caused the number of India’s broadband subscribers to increase 52% in six months ending in February 2017.
As per TRAI data, over 89 Mn people in this group are coming online for the first time. In April 2017, Google’s VP for Southeast Asia & India, Rajan Anandan, said that 9 out of every 10 new Internet users are non-English speakers. At present, rural users account for 35 percent of India’s Internet community. According to a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report in 2016, approximately 315 Mn Indians in rural areas will enjoy access to the Internet within the next three years.
In July last year, the Indian government revealed plans to develop a network infrastructure through optical fibre cables (OFCs) in up to 250K gram panchayats around the country by 2018. More recently, Vodafone made headlines by launching its SuperWiFi Go service for businesses in the nation. As per sources, the SuperWiFi Go service is currently targeted at segments such as corporates, government, hospitality, education, BFSI, retail, restaurants, healthcare, and manufacturing.
Google, in particular, has been working to improve WiFi availability in India. In September 2015, the tech giant unveiled plans for free WiFi access across 400 railway stations in the country. As part of its partnership with RailTel India, the company announced WiFi availability for Mumbai Central Railway Station passengers in January last year. Later in May, it also extended the service to railway stations in Ujjain, Jaipur, Patna, Guwahati, and Allahabad.
In 2013, the Mountain View-headquartered company came up with Project Loon, which has entered India in mid-2016. As part of the project, Google makes use of a flying ring of balloons to provide Internet access to remote and hard-to-reach areas, especially during disasters such as earthquakes, landslides and more.
The Indian government too is doing its part to improve data connectivity. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched three satellites in May with the aim of providing high-speed Internet in India. During the same period, Facebook too rolled out its Express WiFi Project in India, which will help empower local entrepreneurs to make a steady income by providing quality Internet access to neighbours. Reportedly, Bharti Airtel has also joined in to help launch another 20,000 hotspots in the country.
Along with all the above efforts, the TRAI’s latest initiative to set up a WiFi hotspot network across the country should also help in increasing connectivity in rural and non-urban India.
(The development was reported by ET)