Bangalore: The concept of unwired cities in India remains just that—a concept.
In 2006, Bangalore and Pune declared they would offer city-wide broadband access-on-the-move to their citizens through a public-private partnership model.
Network down: A man uses Wi-Fi access at a cafe in Brick Lane, London. Experts say municipal Wi-Fi networks haven’t taken off in most parts of the world, with most of the growth coming from private networks. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg
They planned to have a large wireless zone in their municipalities, using a technology standard called wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, and serve as models for other aspiring cities.
Three years later, not only have Bangalore and Pune given up on their plans, but no other city in the country is thinking of unwiring itself; partly discouraged by the failure of the two municipal corporations and partly due to the non-viability of the business itself.
In the initial Bangalore-Pune plan, the onus lay on the municipality to facilitate grant of civic approvals and access to buildings for equipment installation while the service provider was supposed to run the service on a revenue-generating model.
The Karnataka information technology and biotechnology department, the agency that was to implement the project in Bangalore, abandoned it over a dispute with the vendor Microsense Pvt. Ltd on technology obsolescence and grant of free Wi-Fi access to public buildings.
“Our aim was to promote wireless broadband with this project. Now it is irrelevant, because there are many private companies offering the same service,” said a Karnataka IT department official who did not want to be named, as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Microsense was also the service provider for Pune, where it ran into problems due to the local police expressing concern over security, according to Jadhavrao Sukhadeorao, chief accountant at the Pune Municipal Corporation, or PMC.
Meanwhile, chip maker Intel Corp., which had promoted the concept of unwired cities, disassociated itself with the Pune project in 2007, an Intel spokesperson said.
Experts are not surprised by the demise of these initiatives. They say municipal Wi-Fi networks haven’t taken off in most parts of the world, with most of the growth in wireless broadband coming from private networks in locations such as offices, coffee shops and airports.
“Metro Wi-Fi has not been a success anywhere in the world, including the United States,” said S. Kailasanathan, managing director of Microsense. “That is because the municipality is something like an anchor tenant; buying services from the vendor and then distributing it; but that is easier said than done.”
However, those such as Bobby Sarin, chief executive of Ozone Networks Pvt. Ltd, a Wi-Fi service provider, believe that the idea is just not viable commercially.
Despite the concept of unwired cities falling through, the Wi-Fi market is growing in India, largely driven by demand from the corporate sector, hospitality and travel industries in particular.
A study conducted by Tonse Telecom, a telecom analyst firm in Bangalore, for the global trade body Wi-Fi Alliance, estimates India’s market for wireless broadband to grow to $1 billion (around Rs4,934 crore) by 2012. In 2008, Tonse had estimated the market to expand to $890 million during the same period.
“Already, 30% of the businesses in big metros in India are Wi-Fi enabled,” said Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, headquartered in Austin, Texas.
He cites the example of medical establishments in India adopting the technology in good measure. It is used for telemedicine applications over long distances. For instance, eye doctors at places such as Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, are able to examine patients living at a distance. “Nearly 80% of the patients don’t need to have visits to hospital. It is really making a difference to them, not just in care, even some cost savings.”
Several firms such as Tata Teleservices Ltd, Sify Technologies Ltd, Reliance Communications Ltd and Ozone Networks Pvt. Ltd are setting up paid wireless centres.
It remains to be seen how the businesses do because, unlike cellular technology where signals are available for a mobile user in a larger range, Wi-Fi signals are limited to a few hundred metres in a specific location.
“The big test for us is whether other operators will come to us if they need to use our network. Service providers need to have roaming agreements, that would increase better usage,” said Ozone’s Sarin, whose company has an exclusive licence to Internet-enable Cafe Coffee Day outlets and residential and commercial complexes of developer DLF Ltd across India.