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WiFi cheaper than cutting chai now available at your local tea stall, courtesy Wifi Dabba

Binjal Shah
28th Nov 2017
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With Y Combinator-funded Wifi Dabba, Karam Lakshman and Shubhendu Sharma are working to provide super cheap, super fast wifi at stores, shops, and stalls around you.

Tea stalls are great unifiers - they cut across class barriers by bringing everyone together over an inexpensive cutting chai. An engineer duo dreamed of making quality, high-speed internet just as class-agnostic and accessible to everyone. And could there be more fitting hotspots than tea stalls across the city of Bengaluru?

Wifi Dabba, a 13-month old startup from Bengaluru, is working on creating a network of wifi dabbas that can provide super cheap, superfast internet at prices as low as Rs 2 for 100 MB of data. Sounds too good to be true? That’s the founders’ plan to beat the internet biggies at their own game.

Wifi Dabba was, in fact, a bit of an accident. Co-founders Karam Lakshman and Shubhendu Sharma, now in their early 30s, were tinkering with a Raspberry Pi in early 2016 for a hardware project and realised they could build a router out of it. They set one up at a chaiwallah near their office and within a few hours, dozens of people were using it.

“That was our eureka moment. Seeing people adopt it so swiftly, we knew it was something that was needed on a large scale,” Karam says.

This was in the latter half of 2016 when Jio had already launched. The duo ran a survey with a few hundred users asking them why they were using Wifi Dabba even though Jio had really competitive prices, and found that those “low prices” still strained the common man. 

This gap resonated with Shubhendu, for the engineer and MBA holder from IIM-B had always harboured the desire to make a make a larger impact on the world through his work. So, when the findings of the survey tallied with their observations, he realised that this was the time to quit his job at British Telecom and strike out on his own. Karam, on the other hand, is a dropout who never held a job except for when he was the programme manager for IIM-A’s internet and mobile fund for a year.

Thus, after their proof of concept and pilot went as expected, the sup established a plan to replicate it across various tea stalls and local joints around Bengaluru.

Being the change

Keen to build a vertically integrated company, Shubhendu and Karam decided to do everything in-house from creating their own routers to writing their own software.

They provide connectivity to each store and collect payment from customers directly - on a revenue-share basis with shop owners.

Wifi Dabba is creating a network of fibre optics and has delegated laying it to local cable operators as and when they on-board a shopkeeper-partner. The duo believes that fibre optics provide stronger connection than airwaves, and have partnered with most ISPs in Bengaluru to provide a minimum speed of 40mbps.

The Wifi Dabba routers have a range of 180 feet and can support 200 customers concurrently. All a customer needs to do is buy a pre-paid paper token, connect to the wifi, and enter the token number on the homepage that pops up automatically to fire up the connection.

“It’s a bit of a challenge to build your own hardware, software, sales team, ops team, customer support team and lay physical cables in the real world. It's tough owning the entire stack, but we've come to realise that if you want to deliver something disruptive, you've got to innovate the entire length of the chain,” he says.

Apart from the concept and robustness of their tech, Wifi Dabba is poised to take on existing players by offering truly competitive prices - 100 MB for Rs 2; 500 MB for Rs 10; and 1 GB for Rs 20 (each with a validity of 24 hours). In comparison, giants like Jio currently provide 150 MB at Rs 19 to its pre-paid customers, and 1.05 GB at Rs 52. 

The reason they are able to achieve this is because, according to them, wifi dabbas are a lot easier and cheaper to build and install, compared to cellular towers. It takes an investment of roughly Rs 4,000 to set up one dabba and 20 such dabbas can achieve what one telecom-company owned cellular tower, which costs anywhere between Rs 1 and 2 crore to erect, can. The duo’s game plan is to install lakhs of these wifi dabbas across the city instead.

The story so far

Their first dabba went live in October 2016 and with nearly 400 active dabbas at the moment, they aim to hit the 1,000-dabba mark at the close of this year.

Wifi Dabba has grown entirely organically, sans any advertising or marketing. At the moment, they are not targeting residential customers so territorialism with other ISPs has not come into play yet. Their primary targets are lower-income people, daily wage workers, neighborhood barbers, shopkeepers, and even students on pre-paid connections who can use their connection to download content. 

”We see ourselves as filling in the gaps of their services. As mentioned before, we’ve partnered with almost all the ISPs in Bengaluru and look forward to partnering with anyone that can help us grow our network,” he says.

Wifi Dabba has raised seed money from Y Combinator and other investors, and is focusing on covering all of Bengaluru by mid-2018. After that, they plan to start marketing to scale up further.

“Our company structure ensures that even if Shubhendu and I get hit by a bus, there will be smart, talented people who will ensure that Wifi Dabba continues undeterred in its mission,” Karam says.

“Wifi Dabba is designed to be resilient; it's the kind of service that will be most needed during natural and man-made disasters, and we're doing our best to ensure that regardless of hardship, connectivity will always be available,” Karam ends.

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