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RSTV: POLICY WATCH- PM-WANI SCHEMES


Introduction:

Public Wi-Fi hotspots at a large number of cafes, grocery stores, restaurants, and other places around India could be a dream come true in the near future. In a bid to provide public Wi-Fi service, the Union Cabinet has decided to launch a Wi-Fi Access Network Interface to unleash a massive WIFI network in India. With this, public data centers will be opened across the country. The Public Wi-Fi Access Network Interface will be known as PM-WANI. The proposal will promote the growth of Public Wi-Fi Networks in the country and, in turn, will help in the proliferation of Broadband Internet, enhancement of income and employment, and empowerment of people. The public Wi-Fi Access Network Interface was first recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in 2017.

Need of Wi-Fi network:

  • The first and foremost reason being given by experts for laying down a public wi-fi network is to increase the proliferation of internet services in the country.
  • With PDOs — which will basically be mom and pop stores and other small retail outlets across the length and breadth of the country — last mile connectivity is being aimed at.
  • In addition to this, several telecom sector experts have pointed to the fact that even in urban areas with sufficient mobile data coverage, the mobile internet tariffs are bound to increase. This presents an even stronger business case for the public Wi-Fi network.
  • From 2015 to June of 2020, we grew from 302 million internet subscribers to 750 million.
  • That is a CAGR of 20 per cent, making India one of the fastest growing internet markets in the world. However, this statistic obfuscates the quality of access. Only 23 million are wired internet subscribers.
  • If Digital India vision is to be achieved, we need to deliver a resilient and reliable connection to every Indian, so that they can have reliable access everywhere, at affordable price points.
  • Public Wi-Fi networks will ‘democratize’ content distribution and broadband access to millions at affordable rates. This will be the UPI (unified payments interface) of connectivity services.
  • In most European countries and some southeast Asian countries, the concept of public Wi-Fi is that of a decentralised network, where shops, restaurants and cafes, public transport facilities have rolled out wireless internet on their own. However, the number of public hotspots is only increasing across the globe.

The scheme:

  • It was first recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in 2017.
  • This will allow setting up of public WiFi hotspots across the country via public data offices or public data offices (PDOs).
  • It will not require the PDOs to get a license or pay a fee.
  • This will involve multiple players, including PDOs, Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOA), app providers, and a central registry.
  • Implementation:
    • PDOs will be “facilitators” between service providers and users.
    • A PDOA will be an aggregator of PDOs that will oversee functions relating to authorization and accounting of Wi-Fi connections.
    • A person, who wants to use public Wi-Fi, can do so via an app and will make payments as per usage.
    • The project will also have an app developer who will build a platform to register users and discover Wani-compliant Wi-Fi hotspots in an area and display them on the app.
    • A central registry, which will be maintained by the Centre for Development of Telematics, will record the details of app providers, PDOAs and PDOs.

Benefits:

  • New Wave of Internet Users: PM WANI will be able to connect a new wave of users not just to commercial and entertainment options, but also to education, telehealth and agriculture extension, and bring greater accountability to the government by boosting transparency and interactivity.
  • Enabler for Digital India: The scheme would enable small shopkeepers to provide Wi-Fi service. This will boost incomes as well as ensure youth gets seamless internet connectivity.
  • It can also strengthen the Digital India mission.
    • Cutting the Red Tape: Through PM WANI, the government is hoping that by cutting through layers of bureaucracy and eliminating licenses and fees, it can make it easy even for a tea shop owner to register online as a service provider, opening up new income avenues.
  • Domino Effect on Economy: According to the TRAI report, public Wi-Fi system on the WANI architecture can lead to a 10% rise in net penetration which in turn can lead to a 1.4% increase in GDP.
  • Bridging the Digital Divide: PM WANI can result into a rapid scale-up of the Internet in rural India, which will be transformative, given the low level of penetration — 27.57 subscribers per 100 populations in 2019.
    • Wi-Fi linked to broadband fiber service can be the fastest route to bridging the existing gap.
    • Low-Cost Alternative: Upcoming mobile technologies such as 5G may provide good quality data, but they involve high investment in the new spectrum, connectivity equipment and regular subscriber fees.
    • The WANI system offers a way forward to connect low revenue consumers.

Issues:

  • Security Risks: A public Wi-Fi network has several security issues. That’s because several people access the network at the same time on the same spot.
    • Thus, public Wi-Fi is at a high risk of sending out confidential data (like passwords, pins etc.) over the network.
    • Low Speed: As public Wi-Fi network is usually accessed by several people at the same time, it results in a considerable loss of bandwidth resulting in a slow network speed
    • It is due to this fact, Google and Facebook’s attempts to provide public Wi-Fi got shut down earlier this year.
  • Cheap Mobile Data: As per TRAI in 2019, India now has among the cheapest mobile data per GB in the world, with mobile data prices having reduced by 95% in the last five years.
    • As 4G has become cheap and widely accessible, is there still a need to drive Wi-Fi in this manner, rather than the “leapfrogging” of technology that people have frequently talked about in the context of India

Way Forward:

  • Strong Cyber-Security Architecture: What the citizen expects is robust service, protection of data integrity, transparency on commercial use of data, and security against cyberattacks.
  • PM WANI should ensure the public data is protected and safe. In this context, the enactment of the public data protection bill, 2019, is the need of the hour.
  • Ensuring Competition: The government must also ensure true unbundling of hardware, software, apps and payment gateways in the WANI system, as advocated by TRAI, to prevent monopolies.
  • Also, increased competition will address the low data speed issue.

Conclusion:

If executed properly, the public data offices (PDOs) of PM WANI can do what the PCOs did for phone calls, going well beyond ‘ease of doing business’ to genuinely empower citizens and providing “ease of living”.