Cellular networks in India are clogged leading to call drops. One way out is to use wi-fi to offload voice and data services. The unlicensed wi-fi spectrum can revolutionise connectivity and help roll-out services in smart city projects. The advantage that wi-fi offers is that it is cost-effective, unlicensed and can complement existing networks. That’s what Singapore-headquartered Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) of over 100 members (including Tata Teleservices and Reliance Jio in India) is trying to do. It is still early days for India which has just 30,000 wi-fi hotspots out of 50 million globally. Shrikant Shenwai, CEO, WBA, spoke to Anup Jayaram on a range of issues relating to wi-fi. Excerpts:
How can we use wi-fi to ensure internet for all?
The dynamics are different in various markets, but the challenges are similar. Even if you have excellent coverage in back-end infrastructure, there are challenges. In India, deployment is not going to be easy or fast. You will have to depend on wireless technologies to provide backhaul, which a lot of carriers are looking at. That’s where next generation hotspots come in. The question is how to integrate licensed and unlicensed technologies to deliver a robust experience. Though we are talking about the public using the service, now devices are talking to each other.
With the internet of things (IoT), our vision is not to just look at how unlicensed and wireless technologies can be used for public support but also to enable IoT, smart cities, big data analytics and the roadmap to 5G.
Where do you see India on the global wi-fi landscape?
India is a bit of a greenfield in wi-fi. There are only 30,000 hotspots here. Wi-fi’s success is its biggest challenge. You don’t need a licence from DoT to deploy it. Because anyone can deploy it, operators shy off. But operators are the ones who can do massive deployments. In most countries operators have done major deployments because there are clear business cases.
What models are there for successful wi-fi deployment?
Operators in many countries use the white label model. You provide the infrastructure for the brand which wants to use that capability for their purposes and pay for it. It’s a model that Starbucks in the US has been championing for years now. All Starbucks cafes have wi-fi. It could be deployed by AT&T, for example. Lots of carriers here including Ozone are adopting this model. The other is the data offload model. Since 3G/4G spectrum is limited, it will always be expensive. As data growth is exponential, spectrum gets choked, so you need a wi-fi network to service your customers. That model gained traction nearly four years ago when 3G became successful and started melting the networks in many places. That’s when many operators started looking at wi-fi as the data offload mechanism.
Ultimately its all about carrying a gigabyte of traffic. How does it lower cost of delivery if you use wi-fi? The beauty of wi-fi is that it is location specific. There are lot of monetization models. You can use location-based services indoors.
Operators have used the location capability to provide even sponsored wi-fi, which has worked well. We are beginning to see that in India.
What’s the latest development on wi-fi calling?
Wi-fi calling has taken off. T-Mobile and Sprint in the US and 3 in the UK offer it. The latest beta version of Apple’s iOS 9 provides wi-fi calling support. You will be able to receive and make calls using wi-fi. It will be a mobile number based call, but your call will be routed on a wi-fi network and you will talk like on a normal phone call. It is not a cannibalisation story, because consumers are anyway going to do it. Google has announced Project Fi, a wi-fi first model of delivering services where instead of the cellular network being the traditional first network, you subscribe to a plan which has wi-fi as the core network and cellular as the back up. You use all services be it voice, data on wi-fi and where there is no wi-fi you offload it to a cellular network to get the same services from the provider who is a wi-fi first service provider.
How are the wi-fi delivery models changing?
Cable companies and fixed broadband companies are offering free wi-fi across the world. The home wi-fi login access can be used to connect to the public footprint. The model there is about retention. BT and Comcast have done studies on retention based on wi-fi deployment. BT discovered that broadband makes the customer stay on not just the broadband, but even on their home telephony market. So there is an economic value to the consumer.
Is wi-fi truly free?
People think wi-fi is free, but the economic impact and business impact for the service provider and the economy at large is hardly understood. In fact, studies done by the European Commission and the FCC started quantifying that and discovered that free wi-fi has a $ 30 billion impact on the economy.