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Only smaller players, not telcos, can scale public WiFi: TRAI Chairman RS Sharma

Telecom companies cannot scale on the ground level to deploy public WiFi across the country; instead “we have to create an incentive model for a chaiwala, panwala, and the grocery-store owner to give WiFi hotspots, and only then it will scale”, TRAI Chairman RS Sharma said at an event in Delhi yesterday. Telecom secretary Aruna Sundarajan reiterated that India cannot be dependent on 3-4 [telecom] providers, and instead it needs a system with ISPs, VNOs, PDOs, and small and medium enterprises to satisfy the communication needs of the country.

“Telcos have already made huge capital investments, but they cannot continue those investments at the level,” said Sundarajan “We must incentivise smaller players in large numbers, just like for UPI and Uber. Both Sharma and I share the sentiment that although the TSPs think they’re losing an opportunity, they should actually encourage smaller players to come in for last-mile connectivity, whether it is ISPs, VNOs or PDOs,” she added.

WANI will be to WiFi, what UPI is to payments: According to Sharma, public WiFi will have to be interoperable, “just as today UPI makes it absolutely easy transfer even one rupee. We have got this idea from Aadhaar and UPI. WANI [WiFi Access Network Interface] will be the UPI of WiFi; it will be the scalable architecture of Wifi, just as UPI is the scalable architecture for payments systems.” Sharma said that TRAI has conducted a successful pilot of WANI, which has been submitted to the DoT. “It’s just a chaiwala and panwala monetising his connection, and not a particular company setting it up. Telecom companies feel public WiFi is going to hurt them, but it will actually create a demand for public WiFi. Telecos’ customers can become their retailers. Public WiFi is complementary, and not competition, to TSPs,” he said.

Further, Sundarajan made the following key announcements:

  • A fully interoperable WiFi architecture will be opened up within the first 100 days of the new government. The DoT had worked out an interoperable architecture on the suggestions of the TRAI chairman; it has been approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs from a security standpoint.
  • The 1 lakh gram panchayats under the Bharatnet project will be launching public WiFi within the first 100 days.
  • A project for CSCs to roll out two WiFi hotsposts in each gram panchayat has been approved by the DoT, and is to be launched within 100 days.

Sundarajan on regulatory sandbox, delicensing, and need to decongest infrastructure

Sundarajan made the following comments in her speech. Quotes are not verbatim, and have been edited for clarity:

‘The communication revolution has just begun.’

“We’re moving into any era of hypercommunication and hyper data utilisation, which is why a business-as-usual approach will not work in the days ahead. Virtually every paradigm in communications is set to change, we already know that whether it’s the advent of 5G or of new satellite technologies, already being pioneered by Tesla, giants like Amazon are looking at how space internet will be delivered. In a sense, the communication revolution has just begun.

Regulatory sandbox

“The DoT has seen progressive engagement with industry in the past few months, particularly with startups. The DoT is working on the norms for a regulatory sandbox. We want to make India a hub for wireless and WiFi startups from all over the world. We hope to unveil a comprehensive sandbox framework for startups to come and work in India.”

Delicensing of WiFi

“Delicensing is a major move for Ease of Doing Business. We are working with the entire licensing and WPC wings to automate clearances. Experimental licensing which the DCC approved last month is also working; now clearances will be ‘deemed clearance’ if they’re not cleared within 8 weeks.

Over-dependence on mobile wireless

“The NDCP (National Digital Communications Policy) has very ambitious targets, promising 1 GB for every panchayat going up to 10 GB, at 50 Mbps speeds. But 1 GB in rural areas is not enough – we consume 10 GB on our phones per month. I’m beginning to think we may have been modest with our targets. Two-thirds of India still does not have broadband; development institutions which are mostly in rural India have to still get broadband. India must have mix of technologies. We are overdependent on mobile wireless technology, we have to develop other modes including fixed, cable broadband, satellite tech, and WiFi in the next 5-10 years.”

Need to decongest infrastructure

“Data consumption in most advanced countries is largely from public WiFi, and India should be no exception. Going forward, public WiFi is going to become a critical necessity, as first, two-thirds of India is yet to get broadband, and second, we need to de-congest existing infrastructure. We cannot scale up fibre or amount of spectrum overnight. However we have de-licensed 605 mghz of spectrum, which is the largest in the world. We expect this free WiFi spectrum will enable large numbers of public WiFi spectrums, enabling millions of WiFi hotspots.”

Wifi and UPI

“Models like UPI are the only models that can scale and disrupt. Otherwise there are huge capital investments and high entry barriers.”

TSPs cannot do it all

“TSPs do not need to service every individual, right from having the core network to the last mile. It’s in all our interest to increase and ecosystem players in numbers and to incentivise them, and to bring in policy framework for all of them to find it attractive and remunerative to deliver services. Results have been positive whenever we have unbundled and delicensed infrastructure, and encouraged smaller players.”

CDOT and WiFi

“We need a huge Make in India for WiFi, and the CDOT is one of the key players looking into it. Wide spectrum available for WiFi players can and should and trigger a lot of wifi devices to be made in India.”

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