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Charting India’s leap from the Internet Dark Age to countrywide wireless connectivity

Narayanan Rajagopalan
26th Jun 2018
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Information and communication technologies have huge potential to promote development, ensure economic prosperity, and improve quality of life. Unfortunately for a long time, our country was in the Dark Age, with no means to connect to the outer world. However, with the advent and advancement of the telecommunication industry, novel ways of communicating have been constantly discovered by people and used as per their needs. Once India got its hands on Internet, there was no looking back. The Internet has revolutionized the way we live and introduced us to the significance of being connected.

With the advancement of technology, Wi-Fi came into existence to improve internet experience by making it more accessible for people – be it at their homes, in offices, in colleges, or at railway stations, bus stops, cafes, or airports. In today’s age and time, the Internet has become the most integral part of everyone’s life and Public Wi-Fi hotspots are the new mantra for people to stay connected.

Millions worldwide latch on daily to paid and free Wi-Fi hotspots to surf the Net on their mobile devices. Globally it is estimated that public Wi-Fi hotspots will soon grow to 340 million, amounting to one hotspot for every 20 people, as against the current ratio of one hotspot for every 150 people. But a huge gap exists between India and the global average as additional 800,000 hotspots need to be deployed to match the current global average of one public Wi-Fi hotspot per 150 people. From urban to semi-urban to rural or the remotest parts of the country, there is always an issue of low or no internet connectivity.

Growth opportunities have always existed for people residing in these areas but lack of information and connectivity denied them opportunities to access and explore. A big digital divide between urban and rural India still exists and needs the utmost attention of industry, policymakers, and the public at large.

Although the government of India is taking a lot of initiatives to push the Digital India programme so as to bridge this divide, a robust public Wi-Fi ecosystem is required on a massive scale to provide last mile connectivity for the digital advancement of our society. Public Wi-Fi is one of the impactful tools for governments to create smart cities and smart villages so as to effectively empower their communities with better services. Public Wi-Fi hotspots can provide high speed and stable connectivity to people, enabling the common man to take informed decisions and be connected to the world.

The Ministry of Communications & IT says the Digital India programme is a $1-trillion business opportunity. Since launch, the Centre has been giving it support. Internet penetration in India stands at about 28.7 percent now (rural penetration at 13.65 percent). It has been broadly estimated that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration in a country could potentially lead to an over 1 percent increase in GDP. The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 is going to set a milestone for Rural India connectivity as it seeks to unlock the transformative power of digital communications networks, to achieve the goal of digital empowerment and well-being of the people of India.

Current digital footprint in India

India is currently the second-largest telecommunications market in the world and is on a constant rise. A recent report revealed that there were 3.49 billion internet users around the world. It indicates that that over 41 percent of the world’s population is interconnected through the use of the Internet.

Witnessing a rapid growth in the connected world, India is on a steady rise in terms of internet user base, year after year. Further, the digital population of India is projected to reach 636 million by 2021. The internet penetration in India has risen from 7.5 percent in 2010 to 29.55 percent in 2016.

Installation of wifi hotspots and increasing smartphone penetration in rural and remote areas have greatly contributed in bridging the gap of connectivity. Digital programmes launched by corporate giants including ICICI Bank’s initiative to digitize 100 villages in 100 days and Google’s Digital Unlocked programme have also helped in creating digitalization in these areas.

Furthermore, Government policies and regulatory frameworks facilitate a competitive environment among service providers. The existing telecom players are thus offering enticing price points which in turn push the industry towards consolidation. Additionally, the regulatory authorities have ensured the ease of market access to telecom equipment in order to make the availability of telecom services to consumers at affordable prices.

Growing need for Wi-Fi hotspots

Driven by strong adoption of data consumption on handheld devices, the total mobile services market share in India is expected to touch US$37 billion in 2017, registering a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2017, according to research firm IDC.

In India, most of the public Wi-Fi hotspots are venue-deployments, such as at airports and railway stations (0.5 percent), hotels (41 percent), and shopping malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and retail outlets (58 percent). Currently, 31,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots are installed in India and are poised to grow beyond 202,000 by the end of 2018.

The data consumption pattern depicts that there is a strong need for internet users to stay connected to the digital world on the move. The wireless connection – or Wi-Fi, as it is commonly known – thus comes into play. With the advent of higher speeds over Wi-Fi networks, millions of digital populations throughout the world will latch on to the paid and free Wi-Fi hotspots for surfing the internet.

Globally, the statistics show that the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots is set to rise to 454 million by 2020. With digitalization, previously underserved rural areas can also have the benefit of remote access to a range of digital services, including healthcare, education, agriculture, banking, and a lot more.

Digitalization can also empower women in rural India, especially when concerted efforts are made to equip them to come online in larger numbers. Those who can’t afford internet services can benefit from free Wi-Fi hotspots to access information on public services, job hunt, skill development, entertainment, information exchange, new ideas, business growth, and so on. It can help us transform our world for the better.

Last-mile Wi-Fi connectivity – reality to be

The growth of connectivity largely depends on the increase in the number of Wi-Fi hotspots in the country. In the current scenario, a significant portion of the population does not have access to an internet connection. It is important to chart out a definite plan to work towards the government’s vision to have 7.5 lakh Wi-Fi public hotspots by the end of this year.

In a vast and diversified country like India, social barriers are often the determining factor for the advancement of people. It offers a wonderful opportunity for differently abled people, widows, and veterans from defence services to keep themselves occupied to an extent where they become self-sufficient and lead a respectworthy and dignified life.

With unprecedented access to the internet, the number of people getting online has increased dramatically. Over 200 million Indians regularly use social media, and in the last year alone, over 200 million Indians took to mobile banking and digital payments. As per a report by IAMAI, rural India, with an estimated population of 918 million as per 2011 census, has only 186 million internet users. Thus, there are potential 732 million users still in rural India, if only they can be reached out to properly. Hence, public Wi-Fi has a significant role to play in democratizing the Internet and creating a digitally empowered India.

Narayanan Rajagopalan is the Founder of MarcaTel, a Wi-Fi tele-data connectivity service.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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