Telecom regulator TRAI has recommended (pdf) setting up of Public Data Offices (PDOs) that provides “last-mile” WiFi connectivity in areas where connectivity is low. It proposed a model wherein small entrepreneurs and shop owners could set up WiFi hotspots (or PDOs) by acquiring bandwidth from multiple Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and re-sell bandwidth as data to end customers at a cheaper rate.

In order to ease spectrum acquisition for those setting up PDOs, TRAI suggested setting up of a Public Data Office Aggregator (PDOA)—a bandwidth aggregator which buys spectrum from multiple ISPs and provide them to PDO owners at cheaper proportions, without PDOs requiring to register for a telecom license. The PDOAs can also aggregate Internet bandwidth from existing WiFi hotspots in a locality and sell them to customers at a retail level. ISPs are allowed to charge differential commercial tariffs while leasing spectrum to PDOAs.

“PDOs will be venue owners. These may not own or deploy any infrastructure and may not have the means or resources to actually implement a seamless interoperable system on their own. This is where the role of a PDOA comes in…PDOAs will be registered with the DoT and there should be no limit on the number of PDOs (venues) that such a PDOA can register,” TRAI added.

Why TRAI wants to set up PDOs

The regulator mentioned that PDOs are expected to contribute towards increasing connectivity, especially in rural areas. Existing ISPs and telcos do not have any form of incentive push to deliver WiFi services in rural locations. “Due to these reasons, steps need to be taken to ensure that in addition to existing service providers, small providers can also enter the public Wi-Fi ecosystem and have the capability and incentives to provide public Wi-Fi on a small scale,” TRAI added.

Secondly, TRAI sees PDOs as an “upgrade” to cyber cafes. Over time, people using cyber cafes for browsing Internet have fallen, and more users are making use of their mobile phone for connectivity. Additionally, Cyber Cafes were subjected several “granular requirements” and regulations which could not be “reasonably met by all establishments,” TRAI said. “Cafes in the urban areas had the resources to meet these stringent requirements, many cyber cafes in the rural areas had to shut down simply because they could not afford the compliance cost.”

 How the PDO model can be regulated

Cyber Cafes were subjected to regulations like mandatory user registration, authentications, need to maintain logs, computer/network resource requirements among others. However, TRAI added that entrepreneurs looking to set up PDOs will have lesser regulations. Some recommendations from TRAI for regulating the PDO model:

-PDO owners will need to take care of user registration, but they can outsource payments, authentications and WiFi equipment to “neutral” third parties.
-For payments, a PDO can use “national open Application Program Interfaces implemented for Aadhaar, eKYC (e-Know Your Customer), and Unified Payment Interface (UPI).”
-PDO owners need not get a license from the authority for providing WiFi, instead, PDOAs can be mandated to register with the DoT.
-PDOAs will have to maintain a list of PDOs registered under it and share this information with the DoT.
-A WiFi hotspot device owned by a PDO could be pre-designed to perform eKYC, authentication, and record-keeping.
– “As a user moves from one PDOA to the other, he should be able to use the Wi-Fi provided by the PDO of the new PDOA without having to go through the registration/authentication process once again. Similarly, payment information setup with the first PDOA should be sufficient to make payment to the second PDOA.”
In order to ensure seamless connectivity between hotspots, PDOAs can be allowed to store a device’s MAC ID. The PDOA must ensure privacy and secrecy of information shared with it by its subscribers and ensure that private data is collected with user consent.

Other recommendations for public WiFi hotspots

i) Provide clarity over infrastructure sharing: TRAI recommended that the DoT may amend existing terms of the ISP license to allow sharing of network infrastructure (routers, access points, etc.) with third party service providers—similar to amendments in respect to infrastructure/spectrum/roaming arrangements for cellular operators.

ii) De-license more spectrum: The telecom regulator recommended de-licensing spectrum in the 5.725 – 5.825 GHz spectrum band for outdoor usage, as well as spectrum bands in the 71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz, V-bands (57-64 GHz) to service providers. Note that earlier, COAI had lobbied against de-licensing of TV white space spectrum to companies like Google and Facebook for providing connectivity.

iii) Clarity over MVNO license conditions: TRAI also requested DoT to provide clarifications on the MVNO license condition which restricted companies from buying spectrum from multiple ISP/telcos for providing data services. When DoT laid down guidelines lines for MVNO operations last year, it said that an MVNO cannot buy spectrum from multiple ISPs/telcos in case of data services.

iv) Do away with requirement of OTP: “Existing requirement of authentication through OTP for each instance of access may be done away with,”” TRAI said in its recommendation. Instead, users can perform authentication through eKYC, through identification of MAC addresses, and other electronic modes.

v) Revisit import charges/taxes levied on WiFi devices: TRAI also recommended that the import duty and taxes applicable for WiFi routers/access points could be lowered in coordination with the Ministry of Commerce.