This three-year-old startup provides free WiFi powered by lasers across Bengaluru
The words ‘internet’ and ‘WiFi’ are used daily in our conversations. Today, our world comes to a standstill when the internet or the WiFi connection is down. It is not wrong to say that the internet has become a type of currency that connects the world.
With the internet, you can get educated, find jobs, order food, and sell your services and products. However, in India, access to the internet is still expensive.
Tapping into this market is. Launched in 2016 by Shubhendu Sharma and Karam Lakshman, the startup provides an affordable, fast internet service in India where a large part of the population is currently unserved or underserved.
“We aim to lower the cost of internet to make easy accessibility possible for the next billion internet users,” Shubhendu Sharma, Founder and COO, Wifi Dabba says.
Having raised funds from YCombinator and a few other investors, Wifi Dabba installed over 1,000 hotspots in Bengaluru, offering internet connectivity for as low as Rs 2 for 200MB. The startup also provides connectivity to over 10,000 co-living spaces in the city, and users enjoy prepaid billing and roaming on WiFi.
Wifi Dabba Founders (L-R): Shubhendu Sharma and Karam Lakshman
The founders say that Wifi Dabba emerged from the shortcomings of another app. In the summer of 2016, the duo was busy signing up taxi drivers for their recently launched app, 'Stepni' that helped them come together on an interactive platform.
“However, due to expensive internet charges and poor connectivity throughout Bengaluru, the taxi drivers were not using the app regularly. That’s when we decided to fix the connectivity problem with a reliable and affordable service,” Karam Lakshman, Founder and CEO, Wifi Dabba adds.
“Dabba in Hindi means a box, and Wifi Dabba is exactly what it reads – access to the internet in a box,” Karam told YourStory.
In 2016, Wifi Dabba first started offering paid public WiFi at chai tapris and paan shops. Here, users could purchase tokens for data starting at Rs 2 for 200MB with 24-hours validity. In 2017, with further development in technology, the startup started offering 1GB data for Rs 2.
It also tested a free-internet model supported by ads in 2018 where users could get access to free internet after watching an ad every 45 minutes. Alternatively, they could also pay for uninterrupted service by purchasing data.
Wifi Dabba has also deployed a mesh network in a densely populated area in Hubli which has served about half a million users in over three months. Since 2019, it has been focussing on solving the middle-mile problem and has developed a supernode – a technology that delivers the laser-based mesh. The lasers are eye-safe, and can throughput up to 100GB per second speed within a 20 km radius with no use of fibre.
What does Wifi Dabba hold for 2020?
“In 2020, we will begin rolling out supernodes across the city, and offer Wifi Dabba connections to homes, retails, and enterprises. Home and retails will get a Wifi Dabba Giga router which will connect to the supernode,” Shubhendu says.
He adds that the startup will not use the ad-model anymore but instead, offer access via solving a Captcha Code – a simple puzzle that asks users to identify a car in a picture, etc. For uninterrupted connections, a customer can purchase data at the price of Rs 1.20 per GB.
“Enterprises can opt for a dedicated supernode and take advantage of the 20GBPS throughput with a lease-line-like quality,” Shubhendu adds.
At first, the startup is going to deploy a network across Bengaluru and target the rest of India in the future. It claims to be the cheapest Gigabit internet connection, allowing users to access the internet by simply solving a puzzle – similar to Captcha Code verification, or by watching an advertisement.
Users can pre-order for a Wifi Dabba connection for their homes, retail outlets, and offices from the startup’s website. Each connection comes with a Wifi Dabba Giga router powered by DabbaOS. Anyone can log in or register to the network using a mobile number and a one-time password (OTP). The same mobile number can be used to access multiple devices at once.
The dream team
Shubhendu and Karam met in 2010 at CIIE, IIM-Ahmedabad while working there. Since then, the duo has worked on 33 businesses with varying levels of success. While Karam handles the technical part of the startup, Shubhendu looks after the business. Wifi Dabba has a 40-member strong team comprising of engineers, designers, network architects, and field executives.
The present and future
According to Karam, India, at present, has over 450 million mobile data users and 20 million broadband users. While the demand evidently exists in the market, there must be some factors that have resulted in such a small penetration of broadband.
“We would like to address this by lowering the cost of access. Our key differentiator would be the in-house innovation and ownership of the full-stack of technology. We build everything in-house, unlike traditional companies that have different vendors for different parts of the process,” Karam says.
When asked about the startup’s revenue numbers, Shubhendu says that Wifi Dabba is still in the development phase, and is moving to the deployment phase. Hence, revenue isn't a priority for the startup at the moment.
(Edited by Suman Singh)