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Fillip to Broadband: TRAI issues consultation paper on public Wi-Fi networks

September 14, 2016
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In a significant move that would give a major impetus to the government’s Digital India initiative, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has issued a consultation paper seeking public feedback on formulating a policy to expand broadband access through public Wi-Fi networks. The main objectives of the paper are to examine the need for public Wi-Fi networks in the country from a public policy point of view, discuss the issues in its proliferation and suggest solutions. The paper also explores the possibility of a sustainable public Wi-Fi model both in the form of a single independent network as well as with interoperability between different mobile networks.


Need for public Wi-Fi

Internet service providers (ISPs) incur substantially lower costs in setting up Wi-Fi access infrastructure as compared to mobile broadband networks. This is owing to the fact that Wi-Fi technology utilises unlicensed spectrum and the equipment involved is cheaper and more readily available. Moreover, the maintenance and operational costs of Wi-Fi networks are significantly lower. This could translate into lower prices per MB for end-users, making it a more affordable service. In addition, Wi-Fi networks offer faster speeds compared to mobile data, allowing users to access more data-intensive applications and content. Wi-Fi networks, therefore, offer affordable, scalable and versatile technologies that can facilitate the spread of internet access in rural and urban areas alike. It is also possible to integrate a server with high storage capacity with the Wi-Fi hotspot equipment. As the cost of such servers has come down significantly, along with the cost of storage, it has become possible to download content for easy browsing even when backhaul connectivity is not available. Such an arrangement can be extremely useful for storing study materials, agricultural and health-related information, etc. for users in areas with irregular connectivity, such as rural regions. Moreover, telecom service providers can offload their cellular data through Wi-Fi networks to reduce the traffic on their data networks. This enables operators to offer a better user experience and higher access speeds to subscribers in the Wi-Fi zone, hence ensuring subscriber satisfaction and retention.

Wi-Fi deployment models

Globally, Wi-Fi access is provided as a value-added service to attract customers to another telecom service like cable or mobile, or to an unrelated service such as retail outlets and cafés. Therefore, much of the build-out of Wi-Fi services in the current models is driven by venues or by aggregators focused on supporting access in public areas such as airports, restaurants, hotels and malls. Besides, with the evolution of the concept of smart cities, government agencies, municipalities and city authorities are expected to invest significantly in public hotspots.

TRAI has listed the following models that have been adopted worldwide for providing internet access through public Wi-Fi networks and has sought stakeholders’ views on the optimal model for India:

• Paid model: The end-user or the Wi-Fi hosting venue  bears the cost for the use of the Wi-Fi network. The host may provide free services to its customers or indirectly build it into the amount charged to the customer, for instance by incorporating the Wi-Fi charges in the price of food served at a café.

• Freemium model: Free Wi-Fi access is provided on a limited data usage basis, after which the user is charged for additional use. The limit may be fixed in terms of usage time (for example, the first 30 minutes) and/or the amount of data (for example, the first 500 MB). This model is commonly used at airports, stations and other public places.

• Advertisement-based models: The service is provided free of cost to users, but the providers earn revenues from advertisers and sponsors. There could be several variants of this model; for instance, users may be required to view advertisements from sponsors or connect with advertisers on social media in order to gain access to the network. Further, personal data collected from users at the time of sign-in could be monetised to earn revenues.

• Aggregators: Wi-Fi aggregators like iPass and Boingo bring together the Wi-Fi networks of various operators by allowing customers to connect to affiliated hotspots around the world. The user may be required to pay a fixed monthly fee for availing of the service or might be charged on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Key issues and possible solutions

According to TRAI, the limited adoption of public Wi-Fi in India can be partially attributed to the lack of incentives for operators to invest in Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi is often perceived as a free service and operators are, therefore, under constant pressure to price it low. For a viable business model to exist, other incentives need to be considered for ISPs and Wi-Fi operators, such as permissions for right of way and setting up kiosks at select locations to promote Wi-Fi services. Similarly, commercial models for the deployment of public Wi-Fi services, which involve the transfer of assets at the end of the contract period, should be assessed taking into account the return on investments in networks.

Meanwhile, on the customer side, the usage of public Wi-Fi services is limited because of logistical concerns. For instance, there is often difficulty in the login procedure, restrictions on simultaneous logins through multiple devices using the same user ID and password, privacy and security concerns, lack of a framework on roaming between Wi-Fi networks and difficulty in making payments for Wi-Fi access. As per the existing requirements laid down by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), a user needs to either provide a photo ID or obtain a one-time password (OTP) through SMS in order to use a public Wi-Fi service. In places with high population density such as airports and railway stations, cellular network congestion leads to a delay in the delivery of the OTP. This results in a poor customer experience and deters customers from using public Wi-Fi services. Further, foreign tourists often face login issues when they try to obtain an OTP using their home country’s ISD code and mobile number. At present, there is no defined criterion on whether the OTP can be sent to an international mobile number. In such situations, different login options should be considered. For instance, the ISP’s own customers can be allowed to use Wi-Fi hotspots affiliated to that ISP through a permanent user ID and password-based access.

Issues for deliberation

TRAI has sought stakeholders’ views on the following questions:

• Are there any regulatory issues, licensing restrictions or other factors that are hampering the growth of public Wi-Fi services in the country?

•  What regulatory/licensing or policy measures are needed to encourage the deployment of commercial models for ubiquitous city-wide Wi-Fi networks as well as expansion of Wi-Fi networks in remote or rural areas?

• What measures are needed to encourage interoperability between the Wi-Fi networks of different service providers, both within the country and globally?

• What measures are needed to encourage interoperability between cellular and Wi-Fi networks?

• Apart from the frequency bands already recommended by TRAI to DoT, are there additional bands that need to be delicensed in order to expedite broadband penetration using Wi-Fi technology?

• Are there any problems being faced during the login/authentication process to access Wi-Fi hotspots? In what ways can the process be simplified to provide seamless access to public Wi-Fi hotspots for domestic users as well as foreign tourists?

• Are there any challenges being faced while making payments to access Wi-Fi hotspots?

• Is there a need to adopt a hub-based model along the lines suggested by the wireless broadband alliance, where a central third-party AAA (authentication, authorisation and accounting) hub will facilitate interconnection, authentication and payments? Who should own and control the hub? Should the hub operator be subject to any regulations to ensure service standards, data protection, etc.?

• Is there a need for ISPs/proposed hub operators to adopt the unified payment interface or other similar payment platforms for easy subscription to Wi-Fi? Who should own and control such payment platforms?

• Is it feasible to have an architecture wherein a common grid is created through which any small entity can become a data service provider and is able to share its data with any customer or user?

• What regulatory/licensing measures are needed to develop such architecture? Is this the right time to allow data reselling to ensure affordable data tariffs for the public, a ubiquitous Wi-Fi network presence and innovation in the market?

• What measures are needed to promote the hosting of data of community interest at the local level to reduce the cost of data for consumers?

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