At a time when most telecom operators are focusing on 3G launches and others are preparing for a 4G rollout, Aircel is trying something a little different – rolling out WiFi Hotspots. The company, which claims it has 50,000 WiFi Zones across India, is offering a free Wifi trial until the 20th of Feb 2011, following which it will charge only Rs. 15 per hour (for 30 MB), and speeds of 512 kbps.

Trying Out Aircel’s WiFi Service

My colleague Anupam Saxena tried out Aircel WiFi in Delhi yesterday, and much to my surprise, he ended up buying an Aircel SIM card just for the Wifi. Here’s what Anupam has to say:

“I saw the Aircel Wifi ads on TV and bought a new Aircel SIM (Rs 25) to try out their service. The vendor selling the SIM refused to sell me the SIM unless I bought a Rs. 50 recharge card. The Aircel Wifi appears as an open network named ‘Airnet_Spectranet’. Once you select it and type in a URL, you are taken to the Aircel Wifi login page appears.

Then you need to enter your Aircel Mobile number and e-mail address. An authorization code is sent to your (Aircel) mobile number, which you need to enter to use the WiFi. After this, a password is sent to your mobile, which you can use to browse for the next one hour. The speed at TDI Paragon Mall at Rajouri Garden in Delhi was decent, and I got a good signal till the time I entered the Wave Cinemas Audi. Wifi browsing is free till 20th February 2011, after which it will be charged at Rs 15 per hour, with a fair usage of 30 MB. If you use 30 MB, then you need to initiate the password process again”

It’s not that WiFi hasn’t been done before: there’s the famous Air Jaldi rollout in Dharamsala, and both Sify and Tata Indicom had tried paid WiFi rollouts in the past.

Why Aircel’s WiFi Rollout Just Might Work & What Aircel Needs To Change

1. Integrated billing with Mobile: the Tata Indicom WiFi service that had been launched earlier needed a credit card or a prepaid card (I’m not sure which) for using. Aircel’s integration with a Aircel Account means that on a single recharge, you can use the service at multiple places, and the usage will get debited directly from the mobile account. Payments was always an issue, and this just might work.
2. Pricing: Rs. 15 per hour is low – lower than what some Cybercafe’s charge, and much lower than most locations that offer WiFi. Sure, any cafes in metro cities are offering free WiFi to their customers, but these will always be competition for Aircel. With an easy-to-use store locator, and given that there is quality of access, Aircel WiFi might actually find takers. What’s a real dampener, though, is the 30 MB ‘Fair Usage’ limit (which, I’m assuming, is Upload+Download). While I understand that this has probably been put into place just to prevent people leeching the bandwidth by watching videos online, but it’s still too low on a 512 kbps connection. Given the documents I download and upload, I’d exhaust this limit quickly. Aircel needs to increase this limit to, say 50-100 MB, in order to target early adopters and business users. Having to register again would be very irritating.
3. Laptop, Netbook, Tablet & Smartphone increase: what is clearly different from the earlier attempts at WiFi launches is laptops and netbooks are now becoming the norm – netbooks are cheaper than desktops – and penetration of mobile devices, mobile Internet usage,  as well availability and price of handsets capable of using WiFi point towards a far more receptive ecosystem for WiFI than four years ago.
4. Distribution Reach: 50,000 locations, if true, is quite a substantial distribution reach for WiFi services. My main issue with WiFi (and why I use a data card) is that I’m not sure if I can get WiFi when I need it. Aircel needs to ink a few coffee chain partnerships, and emulate Starbucks-AT&T, by getting distribution across Cafe Coffee Day, Barista and Costa Coffee, as well as do tie-ups with malls.
5. Targeting Those Who Don’t Use Data Cards: For most people, ubiquitous Internet connectivity is a “good-to-have”, and not necessarily a need. Give people the opportunity, in a multi-SIM environment, of having a SIM card primarily for WiFi access. For this, Aircel will need to ensure that the recharge value doesn’t expire ever month. The problem is that people don’t pay when they don’t feel that there’s a need for regular usage, or that their usage limit can expire easily.

Also, do download this ‘Future of WiFi in India’ report from 2007, which predicted that the Indian WiFi market will be (don’t laugh) $744 million by 2012.

Futuregazing

Even though we have mobile broadband connectivity in most places, lets face it – the data card connectivity isn’t very reliable: there are places where you just don’t get connectivity, and even when you do, it can be erratic. As more and more users sign up for Mobile Broadband, the networks will get choked, and like AT&T in the US, there will be a need to divert some of the traffic to WiFi Networks.

Aircel is early in the game, and might end up using its 4G and 3G spectrum in some cities as backhaul; they have 3G spectrum in 13 circles and BWA spectrum in 8 circles. That said, there’s still a need for unbundling the wireline last mile in India, if only for right of way access. What would be interesting, is if other telecom operators tie up with Aircel just to leverage its retail WiFi reach, to offload traffic from their choked networks.

Whether this works or not, only time will tell, but I think this is a model that other telecom operators should look to emulate.