Given the Centre’s vision for Digital India, its plan to offer public wi-fi in 2,500 cities and towns—initial use for free, after which users will be charged for the connection—seems just the right step forward. Globally, there are hundreds of cities doing it, including important business centres like Singapore. So, a 4G-speed wi-fi connection is indeed in order for an aspirational India.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that the government is considering roping in BSNL for the purported R7,000 crore project. BSNL’s track-record doesn’t exactly merit the government entrusting the project to the PSU. Despite having spectrum all across the country, it has failed to add 3G users as fast and even in as much volume as its private sector counterparts. Besides, the company has been decking losses for quite a few years now; its losses grew from R1,823 crore in FY10 to R8,198 crore in FY 13 before slipping to R7,025 crore in FY14. BSNL also seems to inspire very little user confidence these days, with subscribers leaving its network in hordes, something that is evident in its falling revenues over the years. The public wi-fi project can be read as the government’s attempt to help it get back on its feet. Even if that were so, there are many other ways to turn the company around. The government must therefore be clear whether mammoth public wi-fi project is about getting Digital India to take off or prodding BSNL to turn around and perform.