(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Trai sees local tea shops, grocers helping boost Wi-Fi connectivity

  • Telcos alone won’t be able to create scalable public Wi-Fi hotspots as there’s no business case, says Trai chairman R.S.Sharma
  • He says small, individual entities, with the right incentives, can help achieve universal broadband coverage by becoming Wi-Fi hotspot providers

NEW DELHI : The corner tea shop can do a better job of bringing Wi-Fi to the masses than the country’s telecom giants—Or so the telecom regulator thinks.

Large telecom operators will not be able to create scalable public Wi-Fi hotspot ecosystem because there is no business case, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) chairman R.S. Sharma said Thursday. According to him, it’s the small, individual entities who can help achieve universal broadband coverage by becoming Wi-Fi hotspot providers. All they need is the right incentives.

“The architecture (which Trai suggested) is that the chai-wallah and paan-wallah can monetize his connection which will also create demand for fixed-line networks in the country. Big telcos feel this will hurt them, actually, it is a misconception. Customers of these telcos will become their retailers. Wi-Fi is complementary to big telcos, not a competing technology," Sharma said on the sidelines of an event in New Delhi.

Telecom operators had alleged last year that Trai’s recommendations for public Wi-Fi, which the government has accepted, would create a non-level playing field as these hotspot operators would not pay any licence fee or spectrum usage charges while licenced operators, i.e. the big telecom firms, continue to pay regulatory levies.

“Suppose you want to give Wi-Fi hotspots to panchayats, how will the telco deploy it? For each hotspot, you need to have a router, somebody has to maintain the hotspot. Will the telco employ individuals? No, it cannot happen, it’s not a business case," Sharma told reporters.

“Big telcos cannot deploy hotspots in millions. It cannot happen. So, how do you scale up the number? We will have to think of an appropriately Indian way to do this. We will have to create an incentive-aligned model where an individual like grocery shop owner or paan shop owner becomes the owner and operator of that hotspot. Then and only then will it scale up," he said.

Sharma said traditional telecom service providers would not be hurt if small hotspot operators flourish, as it would complement their business and not compete with them.

India has set an ambitious target of 5 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022 under its national digital communications policy which was approved by the cabinet in September.

Back in April 2018, Trai had submitted a report to the department of telecommunications (DoT) suggesting an architecture to set up public data offices (PDOs), similar to public call offices (PCOs) for these hotspots, which the Telecom Commission, the highest decision making authority at the DoT, accepted in May 2018.

The regulator had suggested a WANI (Wi-Fi Access Network Interface) architecture under which small entities would set up inter-operable hotspots so that users can sign up with one hotspot operator and connect to hotspots of any other operator while on the move, similar to mobile roaming. This will be done by opting for a one-time authentication at the first Wi-Fi access point. The DoT also aims to set up five lakh inter-operable public Wi-Fi hotspots on a priority basis within 100 days of the new BJP government taking charge.

These hotspots are expected to boost digital connectivity, shift a big chunk of internet traffic from mobile networks to cheaper and faster Wi-Fi networks, ease network congestion and potentially bring down call drops.

Small-size data sachets bought by users would work across the country but the bill would be payable to the subscriber’s own service provider. At the back-end, the service providers will settle the revenue to be shared based on the data used at the hotspot.


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