In July this year, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India released a consultation paper seeking inputs from stakeholders on the roll out of public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are a means of providing broadband access to the underserverd across the country, along with fibre connections and 4G. Public Wi-Fi hotspots will also server the purpose of reducing the burden on the telecom spectrum, where spectrum availability is scarce to serve connectivity to everyone. Additionally, public Wi-Fi hotspots can serve in densely congested urban areas, as well as in indoor locations where the signal for mobile connectivity may not be very strong.
The plan involves making public Wi-Fi hotspots as commonly available as Public Call Offices (PCO) once were. This will provide Wi-Fi access at the grassroots, and provide a stream of revenue to local shopkeepers and the unemployed youth. Following the consultation paper and the comments it received, TRAI held a workshop in Bengaluru in September. The workshop was attended by stakeholders, researchers and representatives from the industry. The International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore (IIIT-B) was the academic partner for the workshop. TRAI has now released a consultation note (pdf) as a result of the deliberations of that workshop. The consultation note seeks inputs from stakeholders on how to deploy an interoperable and scaleable nationwide public Wi-Fi network.
A major problem with rollout is the capacity for backhaul networks. Backhaul networks funnel the traffic from the access points to the national backbone. If there is insufficient backhaul capacity, the access points will not be able to deliver high speed internet access. The spectrum is scarce for wireless backhaul, and wired backhaul is expensive. IIT-B has an innovative solution for boosting backhaul capacity. Spectrum usage is concentrated around regions with high density of population. IIT-B suggests a multi-hop mesh based middle-mile network, across the regions with low spectrum usage, to boost backhaul capacity.
Authentication is a cumbersome process and requires a one time password on access. Compatibility of SIM cards can be a problem for tourists and foreigners. Seamless hand-offs from one network to another is a challenge. Providing power to all the Wi-Fi hotspots is also a problem area.
The suggested model has five components. A registry for automated electronic validation, with information on all hotspot providers. The hotspot providers themselves, are registered companies. There are support services to hotspot providers, which can be in terms of software or support. A registration service authenticates users, and a payment service manages the financial transactions.
A user will be able to connect multiple devices, move between hotspots, and manage payments in a simple manner after the implementation of the model. The model proposed by the government involves many hyperlocal partners for the successful rollout of ubiquitous nationwide Wi-Fi.
The partners for the roll out include venue owners, such as stadiums, shopping malls, shopkeepers and hotels. Telecom companies, internet service providers, mobile wallet companies, credit cards companies, banks, content providers, application providers, individuals and communities are all envisioned to be hyper local partners for the rollout. TRAI has asked for inputs on alternative models, what kind of regulations should be implemented, if at all, if there should be unbundling at access and backhaul level, and whether reselling of bandwidth should be permitted at the access points.
Public Wi-Fi networks, along with 4G and 5G is an opportunity to leapfrog into the next generation of the internet. The connectivity is not required just for people anymore. Smart cities, connected cars and the Internet of Things will need public Wi-Fi networks to function.
Mumbai is rapidly rolling out public wi-fi hotspots, with innovative solutions such as using the existing CCTV networks to provide Wi-Fi connectivity. The government introduced public Wi-Fi hotspots in 25 cities this year. Sundar Pichai promised roll out of high speed public Wi-Fi hotspots in 100 railway stations at the Google for India event last year.