With Wi-Fi being politicised by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the recent Delhi elections, it seems our politicians have found a new sop to entice the young voter. Free Wi-Fi is the catch phrase being canvassed across the country, synonymous with smart cities, real estate projects and even the railways.
Will these projects be delivered? And is Wi-Fi even the right technology for smarter cities and an enlightened population? In the case of the former, let’s just say most projects will remain election promises; the suitability of Wi-Fi as a technology to reach Indian masses however, requires more thought.
Wi-Fi was invented to take your Internet wire at home or office and make it airborne. For the uninitiated and puritans do forgive me, but this analogy works every time – Wi-Fi does to your home Internet connection what the cordless telephone did to your landline. The idea had always been to deliver fast data over short distances, freeing us from our desks.
The Achilles heel for Wi-Fi is its range and radio interference, dictated by physics more than government regulation. The typical range of your Wi-Fi home router is that of a yesteryear digital cordless telephone. They do of course use similar frequencies (2.4 & 5.8Ghz) and have the same issues penetrating brick and concrete walls in average Indian homes. With Wi-Fi operating on an “open to all” radio frequency, it pre-disposes the technology to lots of interference. Just think of it like rush hour in Delhi, everyone coming at you from all direction, zero lane discipline, and a free for all.
If you have a large enough home to need two routers, you most likely have experienced the limitations of range and interference. Most people I know will have different SSIDs “Ground Floor” and “First Floor” jumping between the two as they walk around the house. Each time you hop, your web page or video stalls.
So I ask the question, is Wi-Fi the right technology to deliver a quality user experience to the populous in a cost effective (since nothing is free) manner?
Experts, mostly expensive Wi-Fi equipment vendors, will argue that their gear has evolved to provide better range and deal with the hopping issue. Many cite examples of successful city-wide projects like Wireless@SG in Singapore. US & European service providers are using Wi-Fi Offload to divert subscriber 3G data traffic over to hotspots in an effort to decongest their mobile networks.
And while these innovations may work very well in other countries, the real question in my mind remains – is it right for Delhi, is it right for India?
Having been part of a company that has contributed to building some of the largest Wi-Fi networks in the world, here are my arguments & learning:
Wi-Fi access points including the outdoor expensive type have an average range of 500 meters or less. Range falls sharply with obstructions such as walls, trees and of course other devices on the same frequency including your 2.4Ghz microwave oven and your existing home Wi-Fi router;
Each access point will need an Internet wire connection to take the airborne signals and switch them back to the ISP. If you live in Delhi, you probably already know how difficult it is to get a quality DSL connection, so getting a reliable wire to each (almost) access point will be a serious challenge;
To cover 1 square kilometer you would need dozens of Wi-Fi access points, each requiring a pole to be mounted, uninterrupted power, Internet backhaul wire, protection from the elements and vandals; One look at the condition of our public CCTV surveillance systems and it will be a wonder if the access point survives the first week;
And then there is the issue of reliable power for each of these access points, sprinkled all over the city. One of our customers (who had installed several outdoor power systems to fuel their Wi-Fi business) summarized the situation quite well “our biggest challenge was protecting the UPS batteries from being stolen from the pole…” ;
Right-of-way from civic authorities to use the poles and permission from homeowners to install and then service the access points is another huge challenge. Unlike mobile towers, you need equipment every 100 meters or so and with prevailing health concerns, fancy getting those;
And then there is the user experience. I have tried and mostly failed to login to the hotspots that exist. It works well in hotels and some airports, but tried a coffee shop recently? No wonder India’s 75 million broadband connections are really 60 million USB data dongles (TRAI Sep 2014).
So seriously, our government wants to do all this for free?
Let’s call the Singaporeans
Singapore recently revamped its decade old Wireless@SG Wi-Fi network, free for citizens & visitors. It was built almost entirely through government grants and operated by a chosen few small service providers. Ask any Singaporean and they will tell you how poor the network used to be.
The Singapore government has now turned to mobile operators (such as M1) to build and manage Wireless@SG. Are the people being served? Time will tell, but Singapore doesn’t have the answer yet.
So will Delhi succeed where Singapore failed?
I think the people would be better served by:
Increasing landline broadband connectivity – believe it or not, India has only 15 million wire based broadband connections serving 304 million broadband users; With bigger bang for their buck in mobile, operators are simply not investing in wires. Wikipedia says 13 million wires against China’s 175 million
Give every citizen of Delhi free 30 minutes worth of 3G data instead. Everyone already has a cellphone and USB data dongles are cheap for those wanting to connect their laptops. The mobile infra is in place and reliable.
Develop every government office as a free hotspot for citizens
Partner local businesses to develop small Wi-Fi zones & hotspots in public private partnership by incentivizing local businesses