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How WIOM Has Helped India In Getting Its Digital Makeover By Democratising Internet


Backed by Venture Catalysts++, WIOM is a new age telecom startup that aggregates Internet demand through its app by connecting Internet operators and users

Until 2021, it was known as i2e1 and solely operated on a B2B model, partnering with kiranas and cafes

I2e1 rebranded itself to WIOM and pivoted to B2C space to provide affordable internet to households

India has come a long way in getting a digital makeover. According to a Statista report, the country today has over 900 Mn internet users and is the second-largest online market in the world after China.  

Behind this digital transformation is the government’s commitment to make the country a technological powerhouse through initiatives like Digital India and access to the internet, smartphones, laptops and tablets at competitive prices, just to count a few.

While the growth rate of this adoption among Indians has been fascinating, there is still a lot of scope left to become a truly digital economy. “The majority of 900 Mn mobile users in India are on plans capped at 1.5GB data limit per day. This means that a child in an average Indian household has access to just 300 MB internet per day — far below than 10 GB that is needed,” explained Satyam Darmora, the cofounder of WIOM (formerly known as i2e1). 

Explaining why this isn’t sufficient, he added, “An India-Pakistan match requires 5 to 6 GB of internet while an hour of online class may use upto 1 GB of internet.”

As pointed out by him, the aspiring India needs a lot of data, but it is unaffordable for most. According to the annual Digital Quality of Life (DQL) index 2023, India ranked 53rd among 121 countries. The analysis of the index was based on various factors like internet affordability, internet quality, e-infrastructure, e-security and e-governance.

Understanding the gap in this space, entrepreneur Satyam Darmora, business analysts Nishit Aggarwal and Maanas Dwivedi and software engineer Ashutosh Mishra started a telecommunication startup i2e1 in 2015.

Operating on a B2B model as an internet service provider, i2e1 enabled offline retailers and cafes to provide high-speed internet to their customers at just INR 5. 

The cofounders pivoted when the central government introduced the PM-WANI scheme (Prime Minister’s Wi-Fi Access Network Interface) on December 9, 2020.

The PM-WANI scheme was launched by the Centre to boost the availability of public WiFi hotspots via offline retailers (or Public Data Officers), particularly in rural areas and to strengthen the country’s digital communication infrastructure.

By facilitating better access to these hotspots, the government seeks to create employment opportunities for offline small and micro-entrepreneurs and individuals (as PDOs) while providing affordable internet access to underserved urban and rural households.

Under the scheme, WIOM opted to become a public data office aggregator (PDOA). With this, the co-founders got an opportunity to rebrand i2e1 to WIOM in 2021, pivoting from B2B space to embracing B2C.

Currently, WIOM has more than 70,000 Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI)-compliant hotspots across India in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Meerut. It also provides internet to households through PDOs (public data officers). 

In Darmora’s words, WIOM today has grown to become the “Uber of the internet”. This is because the company owns no assets and yet connects its customers with internet operators. 

Since its pivot, WIOM has onboarded around 700 internet operators to serve close to 5,00,000 users. Its revenues have doubled from FY22 to FY23. It anticipates to hit an annual revenue rate of INR 50 Cr in FY24 and INR 100 Cr in the calendar year 2024. WIOM is backed by investors like Venture Catalysts++, 9Unicorns, RTP Global, YourNest and Omidyar Network, and has raised nearly $21 Mn since its launch.

How WIOM Has Helped India In Getting Its Digital Makeover By Democratising Internet

Democratising The Internet

The story behind Darmora choosing to be part of India’s digital transformation is quite interesting. 

Reflecting on this journey, he told Inc42 that i2e1 was the byproduct of the realisation that the country’s Tier-III and beyond cities and towns needed to be abreast of more privileged metro cities and Tier I regions of India, and, for that, every Indian household should have an internet connection.

“I did not know what IIT was until my late teens in Class XI. After I became aware of it, I decided to pursue it. However, when I got through IIT, I realised I didn’t have enough exposure when I was in Uttarakhand due to the lack of information,” said Darmora, who hails from the remote town of Darmwaari in Uttarakhand.

When he realised that he could change lives with the internet, he incorporated i2e1 in 2015. Nishit Aggarwal, Maanas Dwivedi and Ashutosh Mishra came along as cofounders.

The erstwhile i2e1 began providing internet access to cafes and offline retailers like Chaayos, Beer Cafe and Airtel showrooms and other similar stores. 

However, when the PM-Wani scheme was announced, the founders saw an opportunity to democratise internet for all Indians, thereby expanding its reach from B2B to B2C. 

With this pivot, WIOM expanded 20X more than i2e1 in just a year, claimed Darmora. Not to mention, the change was not without its fair share of challenges. 

Darmora said that getting the team to adapt to the B2C model was hard. Also, there were several traditional hurdles along the way. For this, he said they had to make some harsh decisions and even restructure existing teams. A new leadership team was brought in, comprising positions in supply, demand, strategy, finance and customer experience, which helped the transition process. 

As the company evolved, it embraced digital marketing on platforms like Facebook and Google. 60% of customers were acquired through word of mouth, 25% from marketing and 10% via direct sales.

The efforts bore fruit, with WIOM achieving a user base of over 3 Lakh in Delhi in the first 18 months after the pivot. The company has set its eyes on building a base of 50 Cr users in the next five years.

While talking about its partnerships, Darmora said that the startup has partnered with IIT Delhi and IIT Mumbai for R&D. It has partnered with OEM partners like Syrotech, TP-Link and GX to manufacture WIOM internet routers. 

In April 2022, WIOM secured seed funding of INR 30 Cr from YourNest, 9Unicorns and a global tech giant, along with existing investors Omidyar Network India and Auxano. 

WIOM also sought funding of INR 2 Cr from Venture Catalysts++ in 2022. “Post our investment from VCats, WIOM has experienced a remarkable 100X scale-up in users and sustained impressive 3X year-on-year revenue growth. VCats’ support has played a pivotal role in propelling our success and expansion in the market,” he added.

A Deep Dive Into WIOM’s Operations 

WIOM places significant emphasis on empowering and training internet operators to integrate its technology effectively. 

Each operator undergoes comprehensive in-person training, supported by a dedicated technology team for on-the-job learning. B2B partnerships primarily stem from offline marketing efforts. Once the brand establishes its presence in an area, customer and partner acquisition largely occurs through referrals.

WIOM identifies regions with lower-middle-income demographics across Tier I, II and III areas by employing a geo-mapping strategy. Leveraging various data sources and GIS data, WIOM uses AI-based tools to map out low-income groups. Darmora highlighted that the company conducts preliminary surveys to finalise target areas.

For individuals or offline businesses aspiring to become Public Data Officers (PDOs) through WIOM, the initial step involves acquiring a WIOM router and cable to connect to their internet line or utilising their Wi-Fi router. 

Subsequently, after setting up the WIOM box, PDOs connect to “Free Wifi” and proceed to register as a WIOM WANI-enabled PDO by providing their details. Post-registration, PDOs can create internet plans tailored to their customers’ needs.

Regarding the customer-facing interface, Wi-Fi users simply need to enable their device’s Wi-Fi, select a plan offered by the PDO, connect to the WIOM network and choose a plan ranging from INR 4 for four hours to INR 16 for a two day plan. All the plans provide unlimited data which means users can use as much internet as they want, Darmora said. 

After selecting and paying for the plan, the payment request is routed to the PDO, which grants internet access. WIOM also facilitates a sharing model, enabling individuals or entities to resell unused internet plan data, with prices starting as low as INR 5.

In terms of revenue distribution, partners receive approximately 70% of the total revenue, with the exact percentage varying on a case-to-case basis. This revenue-sharing model incentivises and rewards partners for their contribution to the network, fostering collaboration and mutual benefit. 

The Road Ahead For WIOM

Darmora said that the impact of WIOM’s services has extended far beyond providing internet connectivity. He said that a recent independent study conducted by a social research company, Decodis, highlighted WIOM’s impact on the lives of its customers. 

Darmora said that WIOM’s services have contributed to five sustainable development goals (SDGs) for its customers. These goals were to educate, upskill, financial inclusion and empowerment of small businesses and women. 

The study further showed the ongoing improvement in WIOM’s impact over time, with rich insights derived from a comparison with data from previous years. 

To further continue its impact, WIOM aims to become the leading internet player in India by 2027, impacting the lives of 500 Mn people. 

It also plans to establish a pan-India presence, strengthen its revenue model and reduce its reliance on external funding. Moreover, WIOM has forged partnerships with banks for funding needs. The founders want to be careful about diluting the equity that comes with investor funding.

At a time when the country’s rural areas remain deprived of the internet, WIOM’s growth plans are aligned with bridging this gap. As per an IAMAI report, the internet penetration rate in India was at 37% (351 Mn) in 2022. This means that WIOM has immense headroom for growth in the telecommunication market which is expected to become a $76.16 Bn market opportunity by 2029 from $48.61 Bn in 2024.

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