R S Sharma on PM-WANI’s potential to transform India’s digital public infrastructure

The Digital India Programme had three main vision areas: Connectivity, software and services on demand and digital empowerment of citizens. Ubiquitous digital connectivity is a sine qua non today. Fortunately, the connectivity landscape has been transformed in the last seven years due to multiple factors like the boom in mobile telephony, 4G coverage, significant reduction in tariffs and increased smartphone penetration. Enabling policies like Net Neutrality and focus on building Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), particularly Digital ID and UPI, have further contributed to the Digital India vision, resulting in a massive increase in digital transactions. However, this growth has also been accompanied by a huge surge in demand for data. Today, India’s per capita data consumption stands at a whopping 19.5 GB per month and the total data volume transported by mobile networks is more than the mobile networks of US and China combined. Thus, the gap between demand and affordable supply still remains quite wide, especially for poor households and rural India. What does one do in this situation?

The creation of inter-operable public Wi-Fi hotspots was one such idea proposed by TRAI in 2017. Similar in concept to the PCOs of yesteryears, it proposed to create millions of interoperable Wi-Fi hotspots called Public Data Offices (PDOs), which would foster a shared infrastructure as a last-mile distribution of broadband in sachet-sized packages of Rs 5-10. The idea was successfully piloted and submitted to the Department of Telecom (DOT) as Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (WANI), in March 2017.

As usual, there were oppositions to the idea. The Cellular Operators Association (COAI) gave a commitment to the government that there was no need for WANI, as they will create a million hotspots within a year. Obviously, nothing was done.

It took three years for DOT to approach the Union cabinet. It was approved in December 2020 as PM-WANI. This was transformational. No licence or permit was needed for operations to start. Start-ups who had participated in the initial pilot started work. Then Covid brought everything to a grinding halt. Now, the operators, called Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOAs), have started work again.

One of the arguments against PM-WANI is that data being so cheap and with everyone having 4G connectivity, there is no business case for Wi-Fi hotspots. This is an oversimplification. The increase in demand due to video and multitude of applications makes it unaffordable for poor families even today. A positive wind has started to blow, albeit on a small scale and in some isolated pockets of the country. In the last year alone, more than 1.5 lakh Wi-Fi hotspot have been installed by PDOAs and more than a million people are getting unlimited internet daily by paying just Rs 5-10.

By introducing various entities such as PDO, PDOA, app providers, and a central registry, an open and scalable framework has been created. In the way UPI transformed the financial space in India, PM WANI is going to become a unique Digital Public Infrastructure in connectivity.

This framework offers a compelling business opportunity for aggregators as it allows unbundling of internet distribution at the last mile, eliminating the need for additional licensing fees. This is particularly exciting as it provides a robust foundation for delivering affordable internet access to a significant portion of society. Currently, India’s home broadband penetration is one of the lowest in the world. PM-WANI presents a golden opportunity to accelerate high-speed unlimited internet penetration, bridging the digital divide and empowering communities nationwide.

By creating a win-win situation for all key stakeholders, PM-WANI also nurtures the growth of local nano entrepreneurs. These last-mile providers, found in small shops, local establishments, and even households, augment their monthly earnings while promoting internet usage.

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Although infrastructure laid out by major companies like RailTel and GAIL already exists, it is currently underutilised. Moreover, many large Internet Service Providers are hesitant to enter underserved areas. This presents a golden opportunity for the PM-WANI framework to flourish. It also benefits ISPs and Telcos as they end up selling more bandwidth by making their end customers retailers.

PM-WANI needs to be promoted by all stakeholders. It is uniquely Indian in its approach of interoperability, openness, and scalability. Hopefully, it will accelerate like UPI and the other DPIs being built in our country.

The writer is the former Chairman of TRAI. Views are personal

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