The Indian government has a dream. Of 10 million public WiFi hotspots dotting the country by 2022. It said as much in the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. 

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) believes it knows how to make this come true. It even goes a step further. Trai wants users to be able to transition seamlessly between hotspots as they go about their days. On 5 June, Trai effectively accused the Department of Telecom (DoT) of undermining its vision.

Trai’s recommendations to bring its plans to life have baked in India’s policy oven for three years. They were sent to DoT in 2017. Called WANI, or WiFi Access Network Interface, a key ingredient in this plan is the drafting of new rules to foster this wireless revolution. 

The telecom regulator wants to allow businesses to buy bandwidth from traditional telecom operators and internet service providers, and resell this to cafes, kirana stores, and even chaiwalas. This would effectively transform these small businesses into public WiFi hotspots. 

Crucially, these bandwidth aggregators and distributors—called PDOAs, or public data office aggregators—would not have to conform to existing licensing norms the way a telco like Reliance Jio or an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like ACT Fibernet must. After lying in bureaucratic purgatory for years, DoT shot down its suggestion on 29 May. To exempt PDOAs, it argued, would affect a “level playing field”.

For telcos and ISPs, this was a victory. The thought of businesses outside the purview of the regulations that govern them offering public WiFi was unacceptable. They had even banded together and, under the banner of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), offered to set up 1 million public WiFi hotspots by September 2019 as an alternative to WANI. These never materialised.

Trai was incensed. If DoT’s licensing framework was conducive to the proliferation of public WiFi, it said in its  to DoT’s 29 May missive, India “would not have lagged so much in exploitation of Wi-Fi technology for delivery of broadband services”. According to Trai, a telecom market as large as India’s—which boasts a sixth of the world’s telecom subscribers—should have 100 million hotspots by 2023. Instead, according to Trai’s estimates, it currently has 0.1 million.

Wired broadband connections are also scarce. In a country with 260 million households, there are just 22 million wired broadband connections. All of this means that mobile networks are under tremendous strain in a country where data tariffs have plummeted, leading to a surge in data consumption. Network quality has suffered as a result, with  a routine occurrence.

“Mobile networks will never be able to meet demand for broadband. Video and high bandwidth applications will continue to strain the networks.

AUTHOR

Pratap Vikram Singh

Pratap is based out of Delhi and covers policy and myriad intersections with the other sectors, most notably technology. He has worked with Governance Now for seven years, reporting on technology, telecom policy, and the social sector.

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