Commercial models for Public Wi-Fi

Can we have a proliferation of broadband access through public Wi-Fi networks? What are the issues and challenges?

blue-and-yellow-wifi-hotspot-sign

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India held a public workshop in Bangalore on the 28th of September 2016. The objective of the workshop was to look at the possible commercial models for providing public Wi-Fi hotspots.

The first welcome step in this workshop was the emphasis on finding commercial models for providing public Wi-Fi and not on making Wi-Fi free for all. It is quite surprising that a vast majority of people expect public Wi-Fi systems to be provided for free of cost.

The present number of Wi-Fi hotspots in India is abysmally low compared to most other countries. There are 35,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in India compared to around 10 million in the US. The real challenge is to build a network of Wi-Fi hotspots through the country that can provide seamless internet access to millions of Indians.

The different network operators shouldn’t consider public Wi-Fi as being a competitive threat to their sale of data plans. Mobile data and public Wi-Fi has to work in tandem to provide seamless connectivity. However, there is an obvious benefit by increasing the reach of public Wi-Fi. The average cost of accessing the internet through the cellular network is around 23 paisa per minute as against 2 paise per minute on Wi-Fi.

Present Challenges for Public Wi-Fi hotspots:

There are numerous challenges for creating public Wi-Fi hotspots, which needs careful attention at this early stage:

  1. There are inherent hardware limitations: Where do you put the modems and routers and in what frequence? Do each of the ISPs get their own routers? These are not small or insignificant logistical problems.
  2. Who will be responsible for the service and maintainence of these routers? What about the electricity needed to run these stations?
  3. How do you ensure about quality of service and uninterrupted broadband access? How do we check and maintain records of those who are logging on the public Wi-Fi systems? Security concerns are definitely a non trivial concern for providing public Wi-Fi
  4. How can we ensure business viability for the ISPs who provide the internet access?
  5. How can we ensure interoperability between the different ISPs? Do we need to log in separately for each ISP that we choose in different areas?
  6. There’s also the problem of the availability of infrastructure needed to provide public Wi-Fi hotspots. Specifically, this sort of operation needs plenty of unlicensed spectrum for ISPs.
  7. Finally, how to ensure smooth and easy payment systems? If the payment procedure is arduous and time consuming, many people will be dissuaded right away.

Once the problems were identified, the rest of the workshop focused on attempting to find solutions for these, though it slightly fell short, according to my assessment. The broad ideas were in the right direction, but the specifics of the mechanism got lost in a beauty contest of the different solution providers.

Pipe vs. Platform model:

One of the interesting big ideas was the emphasis on switching from the current piped model to a more open platform model. In short, the pipe model would expect the entire vertical of setting up public Wi-Fis to be done by the ISPs. This would involve each ISP to get spectrum, provide the internet access, set up routers, authenticate consumers, accept payments, and so on. Instead, using an open-ended platform would allow for innovation in the different layers of the verticals. The payment can be taken care of an external app based on UPI/mobile wallets, etc. The authentication and KYC can be taken care of using Aadhar or any trusted authentication method (even mobile phone numbers can act as auntheticating tools). Local shop-keepers can take up the initiative for setting up routers and ensure its maintainence if they are compensated correctly for this.

More importantly the viability of a truly public Wi-Fi network would work only if individual users are allowed to resell broadband access. This is like the solar rooftop model, where individuals can set up solar power generators and sell it back to the grid. Imagine an open national grid, where each individual can sell/resell their broadband access. This would create a truly seamless public Wi-Fi system.

Anupam Manur is a Polcy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @anupammanur