5G Asia is underway in Singapore, and a lot of the talk is about operator trials, business cases, timelines, spectrum and the challenges of millimeter-wave signal degradation in crowded areas. Unless you ask Google, then the talk is – or should be – about the digital access experience divide and how the solution is public Wi-Fi powered by Google.
Gulzar Azad, Google’s country head of connectivity for India, took the stage during the opening keynotes of 5G Asia Tuesday to reframe the digital divide discussion in terms of the access experience.
In essence, he said, the digital divide – which traditionally measures the gap between the connected and unconnected – will eventually narrow as smartphones and 4G feature phones become more affordable, but the “next billion” will have a very different and inferior access experience in terms of ease of access, speed and reliability.
“The internet experience needs to be universal – it should be the same in emerging markets as it is in Hong Kong or Japan,” he said.
Recent reports have reached similar conclusions. Earlier this month, the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development issued a report declaring that the digital divide is getting worse, in part because the gap is no longer just between people who are online and people who aren’t, but people who have sufficient broadband to take advantage of advanced digital economy services and people who have to get by with a lousy 3G connection.
One way Google is tacking that problem, Azad said, is Google Station, the public Wi-Fi project Google launched in India in January 2016 to install free Wi-Fi hot spots in railway stations. Google has set up hot spots in 150 station in India to date, each one outfitted with 1 Gbps worth of backhaul. Google aims to expand that to 400 stations by the end of 2017. This past August, it expanded Google Station to Indonesia. Azad claims that Google Station connects 6.5 million users a month, and 15,000 previously unconnected internet users per day.
He also said that Google Station isn’t just about free (i.e. ad supported) connectivity, but really good connectivity with easy logons and a broadband experience good enough to set the bar for consumer expectations. For example, Azad noted, even after Reliance Jio launched unlimited data plans for free in September last year, Google Station sites didn’t see a drop in usage as a result – the implication being that the Google Station Wi-Fi experience was better than a cellco offering free unlimited cellular data.
Google also sees it as a catalyst for change – once users see how good the broadband experience can be, they’ll demand the same of ISPs and cellcos.
Of course, demand is one thing – ability is another. Indian cellcos would love to offer consistent, reliable broadband, but that’s not easy to do in a hypercompetitive market with insanely low ARPUs, thin margins and not nearly enough spectrum.
Which is why Azad pitched Google Station as a platform that cellcos could leverage to painlessly deploy public Wi-Fi, which itself is a challenge. Public Wi-Fi networks are typically plagued with capacity and security issues, and can be a pain to logon. And for operators, it’s a lot of capex and opex for little (if any) financial reward. Google essentially wants to provide a managed public Wi-Fi platform that cellcos can use to provide a better broadband experience for users while they build out their cellular broadband capabilities – and they can monetize it with ads, Azad said.
What does all this have to do with 5G? Not much, except that Azad said that public shared infrastructure projects like Google Station should be part of the 5G roadmap – not in terms of standards, but as a complementary mechanism that can fill the gap in markets that won’t see significant 5G rollouts outside of small urban islands of coverage for the next ten years.
“We need a policy and technology framework to be formulated now,” he said.