On 6 January, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) kicked off a series of meetings. The objective was to gather stakeholder inputs for the framing of India’s spectrum policy for the coming decade. But while these consultations will undoubtedly prove critical to the future of India’s telecom space, telecom operators Bharti Airtel, Vi, and market leader Reliance Jio weren’t even invited.
As if to rub salt in their wounds, DoT saw fit to invite Big Tech firms—including Apple, Facebook, Google, chipmaker Qualcomm, and Korean electronics major Samsung—to the table for its first meeting. Telcos had to make do with being represented by industry body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI)—a contentious decision given that India’s private telcos haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.
When the day of the meeting—a video conference with telecom secretary Anshu Prakash—finally rolled around, Google, Apple, and Facebook didn’t even bother to turn up. Instead, industry executives present on the call said that Prakash ended up placating angry telco executives who gatecrashed the video call.
Telcos weren’t livid just because they were being sidelined, but also because Big Tech’s views on spectrum licensing run contrary to their own. Telecom operators have spent billions of dollars purchasing spectrum, as India’s telecom spectrum is among the most expensive in the world. Big Tech, however, wants certain bands—specifically the E and V bands—delicensed altogether. They argue this would serve the purpose of public WiFi, a cause that the Indian government is now backing in a big way.
On 11 December, the Indian cabinet approved a national framework for the rollout of public WiFi under the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Initiative (PM-WANI). The scheme envisions the setting up of public WiFi hotspots across the country, with small businesses buying bandwidth from telcos and internet service providers (ISPs), and reselling this to mom-and-pop stores and cafes. Crucially, these resellers will be exempt from licensing fees.
An official in the telecom department told The Ken that the scheme would be soft-launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi once 100,000 public WiFi hotspots have been made PM-WANI compliant. In the last two months, only 136 access points have been made compliant. The scheme aims to create 1.5 million new WiFi hotspots across the country by the end of 2021—India currently has just ~500,000 hotspots.
While upcoming PM-WANI-compliant WiFi hotspots will operate in existing unlicensed bands—2.4GHz and 5.8GHz—Big Tech is pushing the government to open up new spectrum bands for unlicensed use.
It’s not that the existing spectrum bands in which WiFi devices function are insufficient for most of India, say experts. The only exceptions to this are dense urban pockets in major metros. Indeed, Facebook and Google know all too well that spectrum isn’t the reason that public WiFi hasn’t caught on in India. Both companies have invested millions of dollars into public WiFi initiatives in the country over the years.