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TRAI’s consultation paper on public Wi-Fi explores options for growth of cheaper and faster broadband access

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out with a consultation paper on Public Wi-Fi networks. The paper while defining ‘broadband’ connectivity as a data connection that offers a minimum of 512 kbps download speed goes on to state that the objective of the paper is to find policy solutions for the growth of wireless broadband in the country.

Is this paper about provisioning of ‘Free’ Wi-Fi?

No. As a matter of fact the paper is directed towards finding models that can allow for successful monetization of Public Wi-Fi services. It does accept that the general perception of Wi-Fi as ‘Free’ service has put pressure against the pricing of such services in public places. The paper gives an interesting example of the behavioral aspect associated with ‘free’ Wi-Fi, on the Varanasi Ghats, around 400-500 users access the service when it is offered for free, but the number drops to 70-80 as soon as the free usage period is over. Users there have reported that the cumbersome nature of payments and the inability to use the payment made at one hotspot for accessing data at another as primary reasons for distancing themselves from the paying from Wi-Fi usage at public places.

Why do we need public Wi-Fi infrastructure?

The need of a robust public Wi-Fi infrastructure arises from the increasing pressure on mobile internet service providers due to growth in demand from data-based services.  Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would have to invest significantly less in setting up Wi-Fi infrastructure as compared to setting up mobile networks. This is due to the fact that Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum. Further, the equipment, maintenance and operation costs are less making it a more affordable channel for data consumption over mobile broadband. These features can particularly help in rural areas where setting up of mobile infrastructure has not been prioritized by Telecom Service Providers (TSPs).  On the other hand the increasing demand of data based services has made Wi-Fi the preferred choice for mobile users in many countries to the point that while mobile data usage on smart phones is growing, Wi-Fi data growth is outpacing it at almost twice the rate. (Ericsson Mobility Report, June 2016)

As per the calculations given in the paper, the cost of data over Wi-Fi connection can be as low as 2 paise/MB while the average cost of mobile data at present is close to 23 paise/MB. Consumer tariff for data may reduce as much as 1/10th in Wi-Fi compared to mobile data while increasing speeds and improving quality of service.

What is the status of public Wi-Fi infrastructure in the country as of now?

If it was to be summed up in one word, it would be ‘dismal’. According to a study by iPass and Maravedis Rethink, India had 29,205 Wi-Fi hotspots in 2014, which increased to 31, 518 in 2016. Comparatively, France has 13 million, USA has 9.8 million and UK has 5.6 million hotspots respectively. While the number of Wi-Fi hotspots globally grew by 568% between 2013 and 2016, India recorded a growth of 12% only. For India to achieve the objective of one hotspot per 150 people, we need 8 lakh hotspots more.

What are the present models for seen in our Public Wi-Fi infrastructure?

The paper acknowledges that the lure of Wi-Fi access is presently been used as a value add service to attract customers to a particular location (hotels, malls) or service (cabs, buses). Some telecom service providers are also using it as a bundled package with their mobile plans. The most common models of offering public Wi-Fi are,

  • Paid model: Wherein the end user or the hosting venue bears the cost of the service.
  • Freemium model: Wherein data access is provided for free till expiry of either a data limit or time limit and charged thereafter.
  • Advertisement-based models: Wherein the end user gets access for free, and the service provider earns revenue from advertisements or promotional content. Surprisingly, the paper also suggests monetizing the end users’ personal data collected at the time of authentication into the network for generating revenue.
  • Aggregator model: Wherein end user pays either a monthly or pay-as-you-go charge to aggregator platforms like iPass to connect to affiliated hotspots at different locations.

The paper also recommends trying other alternatives like Community Wi-Fi in rural areas.

What is the regulatory framework for public Wi-Fi in India?

Since Wi-Fi networks use unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 and 5 GHz frequency bands, there is no direct regulatory oversight on the use of this technology. On the recommendations of TRAI, the Department of Telecom (DoT) has regularly delicensed frequency bands to facilitate deployment of wireless access technologies. However, the DoT has issued certain guidelines to secure the use of Wi-Fi services, including provisions that mandate retention of identity proofs of end users for up to one year by service providers and the need for end users to register with the service provider separately if they are using equipment of their own for creating a Wi-Fi network.

What are the main issues that are hampering the growth of public Wi-Fi in India?

The paper states that concerns, such as difficult log-in procedures; restrictions on simultaneous login through multiple devices using the same user ID and password; privacy and security concerns, lack of a framework on roaming between Wi-Fi networks and difficulties in making payments for Wi-Fi access are the main issues that need to be addressed if public Wi-Fi networks are to grow in India. The core issue however is around the user login and payment experience. The need for physical ID proofs and inconsistency in payment methods tends to push users away from subscribing to any paid model. Another issue is with regards to access to such points by international travelers, which also needs to be tackled from the security point of view.

What are the main issues with payment for public Wi-Fi?

The paper has elaborated in detail the issues faced by end users towards payment for Wi-Fi services.

  • Payment modes are available to those users who have access to electronic payment options. As of now this is a very small section of the population.
  • There is a significant risk of theft of personal data over public networks as ownership of securing these networks is not properly defined.
  • Multiple operators bring in multiple payment gateways, and the lack of single payment platform that users could use across the country irrespective of the operator
  • Physical vouchers have their own logistic and distribution costs.

The paper concludes by stating the objective of growing the public Wi-Fi infrastructure on the same lines as the PCO system of fixed line phones from the 90’s. It expresses belief that such a model would also aid in employment generation among youth in rural and urban areas. While the plan is ambitious, it would need some innovative solutions to the issues of user authentication, interoperability among hotspots, payment methods as well as security and privacy concerns of data over such networks for public Wi-Fi to work successfully in the country.

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Ranjeet Rane leads on Internet Governance for The Dialogue.