Wireless clouds on horizon

Written by Varun Jaitly | Vrishti Beniwal | Updated: Aug 27 2007, 06:10am hrs
More than six lakh villages in India dont have a post-office. And they might not need one if the ambitious wireless broadband plans hatched by various Indian cities take off.

You could call it a virtual race. Mysore, Pune and Bangalore have staked their claims on the title of Indias first Wi-Fi city. Others like Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad are also contemplating ambitious city-wide wireless broadband networks. What started as a trickle with hotspots in hotels, airports and cybercafes, could turn into a flood if it invades villages, highways, hospitals, educational institutes and eventually cloud the entire cities.

While several options exist for cities to get a wireless blanket, Wi-Fi seems to be the most talked about. Wi-Fishort for wireless fidelityis a fairly old technology, but its adoption in some new spheres seems to indicate it has future potential in developing nations like India. A person with a Wi-Fi enabled device such as a computer or cell phone can connect to the internet when in proximity of an access point called hotspot. Wi-Fi also allows devices like consumer electronics and gaming applications to connect directly to each other. Bigger cities like Delhi, however, are evaluating technologies like WiMax for city-wide wireless networks.

While Bangalore and Pune, with a large population of management and engineering students have gone on to become Wi-Fi cities, the next phase of growth is in the area of spreading it across a consumer base by providing it as a convenience. Several malls across the metros have installed hotspots to provide visitors with Wi-Fi connectivity to, as they say, carry their work with them to increase footfalls.

Villages covered under Wi-Fi have a kiosk equipped with a computer, webcam, and Wi-Fi antenna. Educational institutes like Manipal University have set up hotspots for connectivity on the go. Fast food chain McDonalds and Barista are providing Wi-Fi connectivity through their outlets.

The new Greater Noida corridor and the IT Park will be Wi-Fi-enabled that will allow users full connectivity while on the go. The Delhi-Mumbai Infrastructure Corridor too, is expected to provide Wi-Fi connectivity. Delhi is gearing up for the Commonwealth Games and wireless connectivity is one of the thrust areas of development.

Though we are nowhere close to cities like London (with 7,130 access points) or New York (6,371 points), tech as well as telecom heavyweights have sensed a huge opportunity. And as cities across the country begin tapping into wireless broadband networks for their citizens, telcos as well as tech heavyweights like Intel are positioning themselves to partner them.

Tata Indicom, which has Wi-Fied airports, hospitals, cricket stadiums, educational institutes, mobile showrooms and railway stations, facilitates wireless global roaming in partnership with players such as BT Group, Orange France, StarHub, Swisscom Mobile and T-Mobile. State-owned BSNL and MTNL are also offering the service.

The next phase of growth in this segment is taking the technology to rural India. In this direction, Intel has already launched a pilot project on the Delhi-Jaipur highway to have villages connected through Wi-Fi and spread their educational programmes, says Pradeep Kashyap, managing director, MART Rural, a rural consulting firm.

Interestingly, some of the high-profile city-wide wireless networks, especially the low costs ones, seem to be facing roadblocks. The US alone has seen 415 cities announcing plans to build municipal Wi-Fi networks but many of them including the much-talked about Google and AT&T rollouts are reported to be slowing down. Wi-Fi has its share of detractors here too. Some argue that putting Wi-Fi hotspots at national highways is not feasible, because to Wi-Fi a 1-km stretch, multiple access points would be required. Making highways Wi-Fi is technically possible, but effectiveness of the business model is uncertain, comes the counter view. Problem is not with the technology, but with its commercial usage, says a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) official.

The railways are also planning to install Wi-Fi systems at 50 stations as a pilot scheme. RailTela subsidiary of the railwayswill execute the project. The system will comprise of base stations and customer premises equipment. While the base stations will be installed at stations that would cover a distance of about 1 km, the CPE with a Wi-Fi feature will be installed at different locations within the coverage area of each base station.

Passengers at these stations can access broadband internet facility using laptops and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Services including broadband internet and voice over internet protocol will be provided through the system. While the system is expected to be operational in 20 stations by March 2008, it would be commissioned in the remaining 30 in 2008-09. It may be extended to other stations, based on the result of the pilot project.

Wi-Fi can save a lot of money by doing away with the wiring cost, especially in historical buildings and tourist places. And once the protocol has been set, it allows interoperability across various hardware units. Its power consumption, however, is high compared to low-bandwidth standards like Zigbee and Bluetooth, making battery life a concern.

Range of a Wi-Fi network can vary between 30 to 800 meters, depending on the area of operation and obstructions in the path of the communication channel. While connectivity is restricted to 3050 meters within a building and 100-150 meters outdoor, clear path connectivity (with directional antennas) can be realised to 800 meters. Range also varies with frequency band, as Wi-Fi in the 2.4 GHz has slightly better range than 5 GHz block.

Wi-Fi is said to be 10 times faster than a regular dial-up connection. For a dial-up connection, the maximum speed possible is 56 Kbps. But if one is using Wi-Fi service, hotels and airports are connected by a reliable backbone connection that can handle up to 512 Kbps of traffic. Wi-Fi networks operate in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz radio bands, with an 11 Mbps (802.11b) or 54 Mbps (802.11a) data rate.

Unlicensed band means anybody can deploy it easily for personal use. One can get a Wi-Fi router for Rs 2,500 and install it in a school, house, office or shop. Even your neighbour can use it if he is receiving the signal and you allow him access by providing the key says Prateek Paschine, vice-president, retail business unit, VSNL.

The biggest plus of the technology is that all laptops are Wi-Fi-enabled by default. Unlike in the case of WiMax, the user doesnt have to buy a wireless networking card. The technology started with five star hotels 7-8 years back, but has now reached to two star hotels as well.

Smart phones and penetration of laptops will fuel the growth of Wi-Fi. Already, notebook shipments have grown 86% in FY07, and today, one out of five PCs sold in India is a notebook.

According to Paschine, Wi-Fi can make offices paperless. Many corporates around the world are using Wi-Fi for wireless connectivity. In India too, the trend is gradually picking up, he says. Globally, there are nearly 1-1.5 lakh hotspots. Out of 600-700 commercial hotspots in the country, VSNL has about 350. It expects to close the fiscal with about 1,000 hotspots.

However, there are security concerns associated with implementing the Wi-Fi technology on a large scale. Wi-Fi requires continuous monitoring and a foolproof security system in place. It is not very advisable to use this medium to transfer sensitive information. It is very easy to break into the protocol and gain access to sensitive information in Wi-Fi, that is perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of the technology, says a scientist in the ministry of communications and IT.

The cost of backhaul is a concern in some business models, but industry experts argue that its an economic consideration and the technology is being successfully used in most countries of the world. The technology is very useful for initial penetration in villages. But private players see breaking even will take time in rural areas. So the government has to extend support through the USO Fund, says the Trai official.

Though there have been some apprehensions about possible health risks such as headaches and lethargy from Wi-Fi, most experts give it a clean chit, calling it safe or as harmful as any other communication technology. Scientific studies have failed to show a causal effect, but some side-effects cant be ruled out in case of an overuse of the technology.

But as the country seems to be missing the target of 9 million broadband connections by the year-end, Wi-Fi could be a potential technology to increase internet penetration. It would, thus, not be far-fetched to think of a scenario when access to the internet in wilderness would be a distinct possibility. According to a recent white paper authored by Tonse Telecom and the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Wi-Fi market in India is expected to exceed $744 million by 2012.

The way forward is to adopt the telecom business model and set up a revenue stream. It all seems very nice to be able to provide the service, but so far, a commercial model has not been thought of, says an industry analyst.

Companies have adopted Wi-Fi only for internal use and no one has thought of making money from the technology, except for the hardware part of it, he adds.