Free wi-fi: Digital Dilemma

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Published: February 22, 2015 12:11:49 AM

Free public Wi-Fi zones are welcome, but are they really viable? We take a reality check

WITH THE government going gung-ho about creating free public Wi-Fi hotspots—it recently announced that it will roll out the ambitious programme at select public places in top 25 cities with a population of over 10 lakh by June this year—there’s a lot of buzz and excitement around connectivity, accessibility and all things digital. If the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has its way, it may even turn Delhi into a ‘Wi-Fi city’.

The time may be right for public Wi-Fi to scale up in India, especially at a time when the government wants to encourage higher levels of data usage in public places, but is it really a viable project? Or is it just an attempt to merely show India has arrived on the global stage? Above all, is it actually ‘free’?

As per PK Purwar, chairman and managing director of the state-owned telecommunications service provider MTNL, there is no such thing as free Wi-Fi, for it’s either the user or the government that is bearing the expenses for the data services. “In certain cases, the service provider gives free usage for a short period of time, but later charges some money for it,” adds Purwar.

In fact, this is the model that has been in place at almost all free public Wi-Fi zones in the country. At the national capital’s busy Connaught Place (CP) area, for instance, the first 20 minutes of usage are free. After that, recharge coupons can be bought online or at the service provider’s retail store in the area. Recharge cards cost R10 for 30 minutes, R20 for an hour and R50 for three hours. The Wi-Fi connectivity at CP stretches over 4.5 sq km and covers the inner and outer circles of CP.

Purwar adds: “At airports, too, free Wi-Fi has been possible because the airport administration is footing the bill for it, as no provider will give such services for free. It’s a huge expense.” At the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi and the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at Hyderabad—for which Tata DOCOMO inked exclusive agreements with GMR Airports—passengers can access free Wi-Fi service for 45 minutes, following which they will have to pay for the service online to continue using Wi-Fi.

Technically, the basic problem with large Wi-Fi circles is of traffic and how it can be managed, “for when a big area is Wi-Fi-enabled, the number of users increases, thus reducing the browsing speeds”, as per Purwar. “But it can be solved by putting up access nodes,” he adds. An access node, or base transceiver station (BTS), provides access to 2,000 people. So, if the number increases, more nodes can be activated.

Several cities have already witnessed free public Wi-Fi zones like New Delhi (Khan Market and CP), Bengaluru (it boasts six free Wi-Fi hotspots), and Kolkata (Park Street). In fact, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee plans to make entire Kolkata Wi-Fi-enabled by the end of April, making it the first city with such a facility in the country.

“Today, Internet is a critical tool for various day-to-day needs, especially in the fields of healthcare, banking and education, and it is thus imperative to enable more citizens in the country to access the medium,” Venkatesh Vijayraghavan, CEO for Bharti Airtel’s operations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, was quoted as saying, while launching free Wi-Fi in 17 hotspots across Hyderabad last year.

Some industry observers say the true purpose of free Wi-Fi will be fulfilled only when the service is extended beyond the metropolitan cities, like it is in New York. In the US city, the service is provided in poorer neighbourhoods as well, something which India needs to emulate. “Free Wi-Fi is something that will best suit the remote and rural areas in the country. Though the presence of such zones is a welcome move, its restriction to cities will continue the haphazard growth that the country has been witnessing so far,” says an official of Reliance Jio Infocomm.

As per reports, the telecom operator is in talks with the North Delhi Municipal Corporation to roll out a Wi-Fi network in central Delhi by June this year. It has already launched a free 4G Wi-Fi service at Park Street in Kolkata. As per CM Banerjee, in the next two months, the whole city will be connected with Wi-Fi. The company has laid down the cable connectivity covering 2,000 km, and around 250-300 km cable laying work is likely to be completed soon.

“The basic idea is to digitise and connect a vast country that has several places where fibre-optics cannot reach, so services like Wi-Fi and 3G fit perfectly,” says Alpna Doshi, chief information officer of Reliance Group and business head, Reliance Tech Services. “We must create awareness about the data services offered and their adaptation. Only then will people not mind paying for it, as every free Wi-Fi zone will have some sort of cap on it. Let’s take WhatsApp, for example. It has become such a big part of people’s lives that even if the company turns around and starts charging for it, most of us will not mind,” she adds.

‘AAP’ SURGE IN THE WI-FI REVOLUTION

One of the things on top of the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) agenda was the promise to make Delhi a Wi-Fi city. But when it comes down to implementing, now that the party has come to power with an overwhelming majority, finer details are yet to emerge.

AAP proponent Yogendra Yadav says, “In a democracy, there is a gap between what you say and what people hear.” True, that seems to be the case now. Yadav himself explains: “If you are trying to access government websites and other public services, the Wi-Fi service will be free. But if you are trying to download a movie or watch a YouTube video, then charges will be levied.” Like most free public Wi-fi services, there will be free service only for a limited period, “with an option to get a paid package to use the Wi-Fi beyond this time period,” he adds. So, Delhiites should not think of getting rid of their Internet connection as yet. Also, by a ‘Wi-Fi city’, the party doesn’t mean a fully Wi-Fi-enabled Delhi, but a city with a lot of hotspots, somewhat like Taipei in Taiwan, which has one of the best public Wi-Fi systems in the world.

Wi-Fi is not an expensive technology to acquire or execute. As per AAP MLA Adarsh Shastri, the project will cost around R250 crore. However, in his first public address, after the swearing-in, on Friday, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said free Wi-Fi across the city will take at least a year to materialise.

The party thinks it will also provide an “impetus to education, entrepreneurship, business, employment and also tie in with women’s safety initiatives”.

While the party manifesto did say ready access to Wi-Fi will allow the victim of an assault to reach out for help, we are not sure how this will be possible unless there is Internet coverage in all places. A lot of such attacks happen in desolate areas, which are even beyond mobile networks.
In order to make the concept of free public Wi-Fi a reality, we’ll need more from Kejriwal and his party than mere lip-service.

WI-FI: HOW IT WORKS

* Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi, as it is popularly known, is a wireless standard that is used for connecting Wi-Fi-enabled electronic devices such as laptops, smartphones, audio players, PDAs and gaming consoles to the Internet within the range of a wireless network connected to the Internet.

* While a single hotspot can cover a range of 20 m indoors, Wi-Fi can cover large areas with multiple overlapping access points.

* Hotspots are sites that employ Wi-Fi technology and provide Internet access over a wireless local area network. Routers are connected via
a link to an Internet service provider.

* Wi-Fi uses a specific type of wireless local area network (WLAN) that functions on specifications confirming to IEEE 802.11b. The term Wi-Fi is used when referring to any kind of 802.11 networks, whether it is a dual-band, 802.11a or 802.11b.

* You can use a Wi-Fi certified product with any brand of an access point along with any other brand of certified hardware. If your Wi-Fi product uses a radio frequency of 2.4GHz for 802.11b or 11g, 5GHz for 802.11a, you can be sure it will function even if it is not Wi-Fi-certified.

* Wi-Fi has gained global acceptance as a smarter alternative to wired LANs. Today, many airports, hotels, coffee shops and public spaces like Connaught Place and Khan Market in New Delhi and Park Street in Kolkata have hotspots that provide public access to Wi-Fi networks.

As they said:

At airports, free Wi-Fi has been possible because the airport administration is footing the bill for it, as no provider will give such services for free. It’s a huge expense: PK Purwar, Chairman and managing director, MTNL.

If you are trying to access government websites and other public services, the (proposed) Wi-Fi service (in delhi) will be free. But if you are trying to download a movie or watch a YouTube video, then charges will be levied: Yogendra Yadav, AAP proponent.

The basic idea is to digitise and connect a vast country that has several places where fibre-optics cannot reach, so services like Wi-Fi and 3G fit perfectly. We must create awareness about the data services offered and their adaptation: Alpna Doshi, Chief information officer, Reliance Group, & business head, Reliance Tech Services

 

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