Facebook is expanding its Express WiFi initiative in India in partnership with Bharti Airtel, with plans to operate 20,000 hotspots across India over the next few months. Remember that as early as a couple of years ago, India had an embarrassingly low number of 35,000 public WiFi hotspots. Express WiFi is also running in four other countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia.

Express WiFi was piloted in India in 2015, and eventually covered 700 hotspots in partnership with 500 local retailers, across Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. Facebook has partnered with AirJaldi in Uttarakhand, LMES in Rajasthan, and Tikona in Gujarat. The company is also partnering with Shaildhar in Meghalaya. Users can purchase daily, weekly or monthly data packs from Express WiFi retailers, but it’s interesting to note that these will be sold at “a rate set by our partners.” Google is also running WiFi operations in India, at railway stations, in partnership with Railwire, but there isn’t a commercial model in place there; in comparison, Express WiFi aligns incentives for different stakeholders in the WiFi value chain.

On the face of it, Express WiFi appears to be similar to what the Indian telecom regulator TRAI refers to as a Public Data Office Aggregator: tying up with a telecom operator for bandwidth, performing authentication, and managing a network of local stores that provide WiFi. The only thing: the regulation around Public Data Office Aggregators is still pending a confirmation from the Department of Telecommunications.

The regulatory situation around WiFi and resale of bandwidth and Internet Access in India

1. Reselling of bandwidth: There is a lack of clarity on whether reselling of bandwidth can be done by unregistered entities. Historically, telecom operators and registered ISPs have argued that only they should be allowed to sell bandwidth, and only licensed entities should be allowed to offer Internet access. In fact, in March this year, TRAI started a consultation process on whether hotels and restaurants (and by extension, kirana stores too) should be required to take a license to offer Internet access. My sense is that TRAI meant to look at voice services offered by hotels (as a PBX), but for some inexplicable reason, they also brought Internet access into the discussion.

This VNO license consultation (to my mind) is at odds with another TRAI ruling that same month, which had recommended in March that the Department of Telecommunications amend the ISP license to allow sharing of active infrastructure to include WiFi routers, access points and backhaul, allow VNO licensees to partner with multiple ISPs and Telecom Operators for providing Internet Access, and most importantly, allow WiFi hotspot aggregators to partner with ISPs and VNOs for offering Internet access via WiFi.

2. Public Data Offices Aggregator ruling: These WiFi hotspots is what TRAI calls Public Data Offices, which are essentially kirana stores that can can sell WiFi packs. The idea of a Public Data Office is something that the TRAI Chairman RS Sharma is passionate about — almost obsessed, in a good way; India historically had Public Call Offices (or PCOs) where neighborhood stores allowed making local/STD/ISD calls, when mobile phones weren’t ubiquitous, and not everyone had a landline. I remember using these almost daily, when I was in college, until I got a mobile phone. Sharma wants PDOs to be the new PCOs, and for there to be WiFi hotspots across India, and interestingly, he wants a national WiFi grid.

Prior to the TRAI recommendation, in a workshop in Bangalore, Sharma had laid out his vision:

“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”…”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”
[…] “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 backend’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).”

In its recommendation, TRAI has suggested that Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOAs) be allowed, which can provide WiFi services without obtaining a license. They would be required to register with the Department of Telecom. What’s important here, though, is the fact they would need to comply with specific security requirements. These include:

– user authentication via Aadhaar based eKYC and eCAF and “other electronic modes”. Also that the DoT might consider authentication by MAC ID of a device, or via a mobile app which stores eKYC data to automatically authenticate the subscriber.
– record keeping requirements (for customers, devices and PDOs enlisted with the PDOAs)

But remember, this is a recommendation. The Department of Telecommunications still has to approve it.

3. Net Neutrality: Remember that in India, Express WiFi comes without Facebook’s Net Neutrality violating Free Basics program, which was discontinued in 2016 following the TRAI’s ruling prohibiting discriminatory pricing*. Airtel had also rolled back its own Net Neutrality violating program Airtel Zero in April 2015. The note from Facebook says that users will “be able to connect to the Express Wi-Fi hotspot, register/create an account, login and start browsing or use any app on the entire internet”, which is how it should be, as long as the connectivity treats all apps/websites and users equally.

*

Disclosure: I co-founded and volunteered with the SaveTheInternet.in campaign for Net Neutrality in 2015-16.