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TRAI Chairman RS Sharma wants a National WiFi Grid


“If there can be 8 million WiFi hotspots? Why has that not happened?” TRAI Chairman RS Sharma asked at the Stakeholder Consultative Workshop on Public Wi-Fi, organized by IIIT Bangalore last week. “If a user is paying Rs 0.20 per mb, and if it is possible to charge them only Rs 0.03 or 0.04, why shouldn’t you do that? It’s not that there aren’t users. What is coming in the way, is the cost”, he said, before offering a solution: “We need to have a completely unbundled model, which will reduce the cost. Why are Uber etc growing? You have to ensure that the cost of maintaining the WiFi is minimal, and take away all the complexity of billing, documentation, and create an architecture where things can be on the cloud. It’s not the regulators job to prescribe the architecture, but at some points in time, you should facilitate, because these are very very important.”

As an example, Sharma pointed towards the role of the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), in helping facilitate the creation of micro ATM’s, where users can withdraw money at small shops. “It will happen if you make it affordable, ubiquitous and very very cost effective.”

Edited excerpts from his address

On an interoperable National WiFi Grid

“My vision is that I should be able to access any public wifi, paid or free, by a single authentication at one point, across hotspots, till I reset it,” Sharma said. “Currently I have to tell the WiFi network who I am every time. I need a password or an OTP. Ultimately, I am the same person, and my device is also the same. So can we have an arrangement, where I authenticate once, and use it again and again?” This is possible if the users identity for the WiFi authentication is in the cloud

“Secondly, every time I latch on to a paid wifi, it asks me my bank account number. Can we have a situation where this also is done just once, and there is some system by which, every time I say that I want this WiFi, the hotspot verifies who I am, and whether I am registered, and whether I have a payment instrument attached. It should be the back-end’s job to catch my ID, and ensure that I have a payment instrument, and of course it shouldn’t have the ability to deduct unless I authorise.”

“It should be completely interoperable. It shouldn’t matter whether it is Airtel or XYZ who provides the service. If there are 5 WiFi providers in an area, and people have different types of services, I can choose what I want. This can become a real a national grid (for WiFi).”

WiFi Hotsposts as Public Data Offices, like PCO’s, as suppliers for the WiFi Grid

“If we can come up with an architecture,” Sharma said, “which allows seamless roaming within a WiFi grid in the country, and for people who can people put up these WiFis… I’m not looking at large companies putting up WiFi: We used to have PCO’s. Can we have Public Data Offices, where a grocery shop can have a wifi hotspot, where the authentication is taken care of by the back-end of the hotspot? All he has to do is keep the WiFi connected to power.”

“I think we are looking at a situation where millions small entrepreneurs should be able to participate in digital, and there should be a cottage industry of Public Wifi on the supply side, and on the demand side you have the entire population.”

Sharma pointed out that the number of wifi hotspots in India is around 35,000, while it is around 10 million in the US, and 9.5 million in France.

Affordability of Public WiFi

“Nothing will work in this country, unless it is affordable. When I say that our telecom (calling) rates are Rs 0.40 (per minute), people don’t believe it. Telecom companies are able to make money because NP (the multiple of Number of users and Price) is large. The P is small, but the N is very very large. Affordability is very very important. Data prices have come down in the last couple of weeks. Our officers did this study, that cost of cellular data is Rs 0.20, and cost of WiFi is Rs 0.02.”

On Aadhaar and the need for wireline connectivity

“When we were doing Aadhaar, and we said it will be an online infrastructure and identity. People said you
are creating an online identity in a situation where connectivity doesn’t exist. So there was a huge amount of pressure on us to make it work offline as well. Our view was that we are creating a future-proof identity infrastructure. We don’t want an infrastructure which becomes useless tomorrow. The future is online. The future is a connected world.”

“Today with Aadhaar, I keep getting complaints that there isn’t a tower in a place and therefore we weren’t able to authenticate. Therefore, connectivity is a very very serious problem. There are reasons in history for that: when we moved from fixed line to mobile, we had very few fixed lines, and even those have reduced. Today again we’ve come back to the same situation: if you want a robust connectivity which can deliver high fidelity applications like telemedicine, you need to have a piped connectivity. You have 3G right now and 4G, and 5G will come. The wireless applications should happen, and there need to be better models for that.

On digital cable for broadband infrastructure

“What is happening is that the data hunger and the data requirement cannot be satisfied unless you have some robust infrastructure. To ensure that every household starts having a telephone line or fibre to home, in a one billion population: that doesn’t seem feasible. We should start figuring out what are the possible ways in which this data hunger can be fulfilled if we want to realize a vision.”

“Broadly, we have been working on using digital cable tv infra to provide broadband: there are 100 million homes in India which have got digital cable TV. The coaxial cables might to be able to do 10 mbps and higher speeds, but the cost of the fibre is minuscule, when it comes to taking fibre from place A to place B. 90% of the cost is right of way and digging. Digital cable or LCO have already solved that Right of Way problem.”

“Therefore, this is one area where we are saying please use digital cable infrastrucute to deliver broadband. If we have 100 million homes connected, we can reach 500 million people. There are policy discussions happening around this.”

Note: #NAMAwifi is taking place in Delhi on the 6th of October 2016. We’re all full up, but you may apply for a waitlist here

Photo credit: the TRAI Chairman RS Sharma’s twitter account.

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