India's government has given its blessing to plans for a nationwide system of Wi-Fi hotspots.
The public Wi-Fi network will be set up by Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOAs), which will provide Wi-Fi service through Public Data Offices (PDOs). Essentially, the PDO will establish and operate the Wi-Fi access point and deliver broadband services to the end-user.
In the meantime, the PDOA will take care of accounting and administrative tasks. Its new app will allow users to register their details and find nearby Wi-Fi hotspots. The model is similar to that of the Public Call Office (PCO), which unleashed a telecom revolution in India in the 1990s.
Authorities hope the scheme, which has been in development for the last three or four years, will help to create new work opportunities and boost the income of small entrepreneurs. It is not clear how many Wi-Fi hotspots will be set up as part of the initiative.
While the scheme is ambitious, several experts think it is somewhat late in the day. Growing coverage of 4G in the Tier 1 and 2 cities has led to massive data consumption across India. The mobile technology accounted for 93% of data usage at the end of 2019, according to data released by regulatory authorities.
"Public Wi-Fi will help in areas where the existing 4G connectivity is unable to meet the demand," says Amresh Nandan, the vice president of research at Gartner. "So public places like railway stations and airports will benefit from this initiative."
"I would say that a careful selection of Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas will be required for the project's success," Nandan added. "On the other hand, it will need to complement additional value-added services, like Wi-Fi and information services, to appeal to the end-user in remote areas."
"One has to realize that with limited coverage, Wi-Fi cannot be a substitute for mobility."
Wi-Fi rollout has lagged government targets. Back in 2018, the government said it was aiming to build 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots across India. Today, there are just 300,000.
"While it is a unique model for setting up Wi-Fi hotspots, the feasibility is a challenge," says Ashwinder Sethi, a principal analyst at Analysys Mason. "A key issue is that the 4G availability and throughput are very good now, and the tariff is also not prohibitive for most sections of the society."
"In this scenario, I don't see this initiative as a gamechanger for India," adds Sethi. "It would have been relevant four to five years back when 4G coverage was limited."
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading