The promise of free WiFi was an intriguing part of the Aam Aadmi Party manifesto: there were scant details (to my knowledge) of what the exact offering would be. Now that the political party has won with a historic majority, all eyes are on how this will be implemented. News reports suggest the following: it will cost Rs 150-200 crore, it could be advertising supported, and Facebook has been in talks with them (for the net-neutrality violating Internet.org).
There is a great opportunity to make Delhi into a vibrant tech and free speech hub, and here’s how we think the tech-hub part of it should be implemented, taking into account issues of neutrality, competition, accessibility, security and convenience:
1. At the core, a neutral WiFi infrastructure service provider: This can be pure play telecom/Internet infrastructure company like Indus Towers (a JV between Airtel, Idea and Vodafone) or an independent white labeled player like Ozone Networks. It must be compulsory for whoever wins the contract to ensure that all licensed ISPs and Telecom Operators are able to offer their services on top of free WiFi, for which they can buy bandwidth.
There should be a designated number of hotspots in the city (say, 10,000 hotspots). A white labeled approach ensures that Delhi isn’t carved up into fiefdoms of telecom operators: that some areas only have MTNL, others only have Tata Teleservices, Reliance Jio or Airtel. That’s the way home wireline and Cable TV access currently works in Delhi: everyone has their own fiefdom because right of way access to build infrastructure is costly and requires too much investment. For Internet to grow in India, we can’t rely on mobile networks alone, and it’s important to encourage the creation of physical infrastructure (and WiFi on top of it). Telecom businesses, globally, are separating the infrastructure business from the consumer facing business.
It is also essential that the core network provider not, in a manner of speaking, “own the customer”. Its job should only be to provide high quality, high speed WiFi access, and its customers should be telecom operators, not end consumers.
2. Net-Neutral approach, Freemium model: It doesn’t make sense to give a large amount of data for free – the state can’t afford it, and it would harm existing competing businesses. The Internet.org approach is a bad idea, because it creates a situation where some companies (or even some government services) benefit over others. This includes government services: if a startup can create a better bill payment site than the government, why should the government service have Zero rating versus the startup? Or be a part of a gateway, when a startup cannot? The idea should be to give a limited amount of data for free, and let people decide. Access should be neutral.
In our opinion, the Delhi government should give 15 minutes or 30 MB per account of usage for free. This ensures that people use it sparingly and primarily for things they find essential (even if it is Facebook), but it is their choice, and not determined by a nanny state, or an anti-competitive telco or Internet company.
The principle of non discrimination is essential, when it comes to three things: availability of services, speed of access and cost of access.
3. Address security issues by linking mobile numbers to WiFi access: All Internet access via this provider should be linked to mobile numbers. This would put the onus of subscriber verification on telecom operators, which it is. Apart from this, consumers would have to enter their name and mobile number, and give a missed call to a unique mobile number (something simple like 2000) for access to be authenticated. Verification should not be SMS-based because customers on the Do Not Call registry don’t get verification messages.
To the question of linking the mobile number: Keep in mind that Delhi is a city with high teledensity, and it is rare to find someone who has an Internet access device (smartphone/PC) but not a mobile connection.
4. Make Telecom operators compete for business: On top of the core service provider, there should be incentive for all telecom operators and ISPs to provide WiFi to consumers. Beyond 15 minutes or 30 MB, consumers should be able to buy WiFi access via their prepaid balance or postpaid bill. The core network provider should operate like a pure infrastructure company, and telecom operators should be able to buy bandwidth from them to offer to their customers. They may charge customers for this, or use the WiFi to take load off their already strained networks in places like Connought Place and Delhi University. Apart from this, allow telecom operators to distribute scratch cards to those who want to pay offline to buy WiFi access. They have the retail network for this.
It’s important that the authentication mechanism (using mobile numbers) must be separate from charging for usage. I should, as an Airtel customer, be able to authenticate my access using Airtel number, but also have the freedom to buy a Vodafone scratch card if it has an offer that is better than Airtel. Of course, Airtel has an advantage that I won’t need to buy a scratch card, but let competition prevail: Customers should not feel locked in to a specific service provider, like they do with mobile services, where Airtel, Idea and Vodafone account for 64% of total active users in India.
Any company should be able to apply for a state level ISP license to buy bandwidth from the network service provider, and offer it to customers.
Apart from this
Wish something is done about two other things in Delhi (not including the startups side of policy):
– Firstly, a massive, flexible, conference facility in the city that can accommodate a conference and exhibition for the tech industry, with 20,000 delegates. Today, there isn’t even a venue, where the same venue can be used for business events that can accommodate from 500 to 20,000 delegates. Pragati Maidan, despite a great location, is inefficient, open air and too spread out.
Large conferences attract business to the city (and the country), and will encourage investment in Tech in India. A global digital conference being held in India should be at a much larger scale, and the state should subsidize it. Look at what Barcelona does to host the Mobile World Congress: delegates (and I’m going again this year) even get a free pass from the city for the free use of buses and subways for the duration of the conference. Delhi should be that city: the gateway to tech in India. It will bring investment in tech, and bring employment to lots of ancillary businesses.
– Secondly, unbundling of wireline access: for Internet access, Delhi is divided into fiefdoms of cable operators and telecom operators who own the pipes. Unbundling will ensure that one company looks after infrastructure, and consumers can choose their service provider. Airtel gets away with its discriminatory ‘Fair Usage Policy’ because consumers often don’t have a choice. I have to put up with MTNL connections going down every few days because not many companies offer Internet services in my part of the city.
Disclosure: Airtel is currently an advertiser with MediaNama