India has launched a new scheme to accelerate the proliferation of broadband through public Wi-Fi networks especially in areas where Indian telecom operators have limited reach in terms of their respective networks. The latest scheme, namely PM WANI, was first recommended by the Indian telecom regulator in 2016 and was subsequently proposed by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to the country’s telecom ministry.
India’s union cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday gave its approval for the proposal of DoT for setting up of public Wi-Fi Networks by Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOAs) to provide public Wi-Fi service through Public Data Offices (PDOs) spread across the length and breadth of the country.
“There shall be no license fee for providing Broadband Internet through these public Wi-Fi networks….the proposal will promote the growth of Public Wi-Fi Networks in the country and, in turn, will help in proliferation of Broadband Internet, enhancement of income and employment and empowerment of people,” the Indian government said in a notification on Wednesday.
India’s telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the public Wi-Fi project will “unleash a broadband revolution in India and empower the lives of ordinary Indians, much like the PCO model of past decades that drove mass proliferation of basic telephone services.”
He said that the proliferation of public Wi-Fi will not only create employment but also enhance disposable incomes in the hands of small and medium entrepreneurs and boost the GDP of the country.
India, which was targeting 5 million Wi-Fi hotspots by December 2020, currently has just 100,000 Wi-FI hotspots. Under the country’s National Digital Communications Policy 2018, India is targeting 10 million WiFi hotspots by 2022.
“Proliferation of broadband services through public Wi-Fi is a step towards digital India and consequential benefit thereon,” as per an official statement.
Under the scheme, the Public Data Office (PDO) will establish, maintain, and operate only WANI compliant Wi-Fi Access Points and deliver broadband services to subscribers.
India will not charge any license fee for providing broadband internet services using public Wi-Fi Hotspots. Prasad said that the proposed categories of PDOs won’t need a licence, and also won’t have to pay any entry fee or go through a registration process.
Service aggregators or Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOA) will perform the functions relating to authorization and accounting, while app providers will develop applications to register users and discover WANI compliant Wi-Fi hotspots in the nearby area and display the same within the App for accessing the internet service.
The service aggregators, who will work closely with the PDOs and app providers, will be registered within a week of putting in an application, Prasad said.
“This [Wi-Fi service] is expected to be more business-friendly and in line with efforts for ease of doing business. COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated delivery of stable and high-speed Broadband Internet (data) services to an increasingly large number of subscribers in the country including areas which do not have 4G mobile coverage. This can be achieved by deployment of Public Wi-Fi,” the Indian government said in a notification.
Indian telcos and public Wi-Fi
Indian telecom operators were previously betting big on public Wi-Fi hotspots to create a new revenue stream and offload data to decongest their respective networks. However, they didn’t make efforts citing security concerns and low rates for data services, especially after the entry of Reliance Jio.
Interestingly, Jio had also adopted an aggressive strategy to create a large public Wi-Fi network in India. But, it couldn’t scale the service after it started charging consumers.
The availability of ultra-cheap 4G data also forced Google and Facebook to discontinue their Wi-Fi service in India.
Google, Facebook and their failed attempt
Google had started its free Wi-Fi service, called Google Station, in 2015 in partnership with state-run RailTel Corp. It equipped over 400 railways stations in India with high-speed Wi-Fi networks, making it one of the largest public Wi-Fi projects in the world.
In February this year, Google said that getting online has become much simpler and cheaper in India and mobile data plans have become more affordable. It also said that the challenge of varying technical requirements and infrastructure among its partners across countries also made it difficult for Station to scale and be sustainable, especially for its partners. Facebook also discontinued its Express Wi-Fi service quietly last year. It was working with local entrepreneurs to offer the paid Wi-Fi service in suburban and rural areas of some Indian states.