Wi-Fication: Digital divide to digital dividend

telecom sector, modi govt, NTP99, ICT sector Successful roll-out of Wi-Fi across India would require large investments as well as new business models to attract private participation.

The explosive expansion of mobile telephony in India is a shining case study for the entire world. The Indian telecom sector managed to add about one billion mobile subscribers in last 10 years, taking cognisance of a digitally-connected society and the socio-economic benefits it brings forth.

It is estimated a 10% increase in internet penetration can lead to 1.4% growth in GDP of a developing economy. To ensure a digitally-inclusive society, the government and private players have launched several user-friendly applications that provide e-governance, and services such as e-health, online banking, education, e-commerce and e-KYC. But for the success of Digital India, the last-mile user must be given access to these services that demand high-speed internet and a robust infrastructure for seamless connectivity.

Given the vast population, high demand and geographic divide, it seems a difficult task to provide broadband connections to all. One of the most economically-viable and practically-possible options is Wi-Fication. Since 2010, Wi-Fi hotspots have seen an increase by 568% all over the world. India witnessed 12% growth in installation of hotspots—currently there are 31,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in India. However, this is an infinitesimally small number compared to France (13 million), the US (9.8 million) and the UK (5.6 million). Considering the global average of one public Wi-Fi hotspot per 150 people, India needs eight million Wi-Fi hotspots.

BharatNet and Digital India aim to provide high-speed fibre connectivity to 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, boosting Wi-Fi services. The National Telecom Policy (NTP) 2018 is working towards providing affordable internet connections pan-India and and on-demand bandwidth to 50% households by 2022. The government also plans to connect 5.5 lakh villages with Wi-Fi by 2019 at a cost of Rs 37 billion. While the government has decided to deploy 7.5 lakh public Wi-Fi hotspots, it needs to address issues related to interoperability between cellular operators and Wi-Fi services, Right of Way, single-window clearance, and overhaul of complex taxation regime.

Wi-Fi hotspots have several advantages. w Connecting the unconnected: Almost 65% of India’s population lives in rural areas, of which just 132 million use the internet. Although initiatives are underway to connect villages with a high-speed fibre network, fibre to the home and wired internet, these are vast and expensive roll-outs. Wi-Fi provides the opportunity to connect people in remote areas in a cost-effective way as it is the cheapest wireless option.

w Access to public services: Railway stations are being equipped with public Wi-Fi services to provide free access to public services—216 major stations with Wi-Fi services are helping seven million passengers to connect to the internet. w Multiple devices: Wi-Fi can be accessed via any supporting device, irrespective of technology such as 3G or 4G. Next-generation affordable feature phones support Wi-Fi, which can help improve connectivity in rural areas.

w Network congestion: Mobile data consumption in the country has increased by 144% year-on-year to 2,360-petabytes. The average user consumes almost 11GB of data per month. Wi-Fi hotspots can be leveraged to reroute the traffic during peak hours to decongest the networks. w Addressing spectrum issues: Wi-Fi uses radio waves at a frequency of 2.4GHz and 5GHz to create a wireless network. Wi-Fi hotspots can address the quality of service issues related to telcos’ low average spectrum holding per operator per circle in India (i.e. 25MHz against global average of 50MHz). Proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots can significantly reduce the need for more cellular towers and thus can help in compliance to meet the cellular radiation norms.

Wi-Fi is a great opportunity to address the existing digital divide in India and convert it into digital dividend. However, its successful roll-out requires large investments as well as new business models to attract private participation. The untapped market of 900 million subscribers could provide the opportunity for fostering new businesses and innovation in the sector that will lay the foundation for a digitally-connected, digitally-inclusive and digitally-literate India.

By Hemant Joshi

Partner, Deloitte India

Source: Financial Express