Public WiFi Plan for Wider Broadband Reach Cleared

Millions of data-hungry consumers across India may soon enjoy top download speeds and a quality video experience anywhere in the country — even in places without mobile coverage — and at all times. This, after the Union Cabinet cleared a proposal to boost national broadband penetration through the public WiFi route using unlicensed entities — something like the PCO model of yore.

The Cabinet cleared the aggregator-model suggested by the telecom regulator, paving the way for new categories of public data offices, public data office aggregators and app providers to deliver public WiFi services without a licence.

“The Cabinet has cleared the setting up of public WiFi networks by PDOAs that will unleash a broadband revolution in India and empower the lives of ordinary Indians, much like the PCO model did in the past decades in driving mass proliferation of basic telephone services,” telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said at a briefing on Friday.

A village boy without access to expensive books, he said, would soon be able to pursue his studies by downloading ebooks using public WiFi services. Pricing of such services, though, would be left to market forces. Critics of this policy say public Wifi may have lost its relevance in India now, given the dirt cheap mobile data rates.

Cabinet approval for the public Wi-Fi project comes a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the government’s resolve to boost countrywide internet penetration by widening the spread of fixed line broadband connectivity and public WiFi hotspots.

Back in March 2017, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had recommended that a new category of PDOAs deliver public WiFi services without a licence. It had also suggested that such aggregators work with small entrepreneurs, who would provide the venues or ‘public data offices’ to drive such mass WiFi deployments. The app providers, in turn, would register consumers keen to avail of the public WiFi service and locate hotspots, and offer the information to the end consumer to facilitate internet access.

But even though public WiFi became a buzzword of sorts nearly four years ago, countrywide public WiFi networks have not seen the light of day. This is since broadband service providers and telcos have been at loggerheads over utility of the tech.

Telcos have repeatedly said there is no business case for public WiFi, on grounds that mobile data rates in India are already amongst the lowest. But broadband service providers have countered, saying mobile data rates are actually set to rise with the Big 3 telcos clamouring for a floor and that with data consumption also surging, access to back-up public Wi-Fi networks would only complement stretched mobile networks in ensuring a quality, video-grade broadband experience to consumers.

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