TRAI readies public wifi rules; pricing at two paise per MB

Ramarko Sengupta February 14, 2017 5 min

Story Highlights

  • The pricing of public WiFi could be as low as two paise per MB, about one-tenth the average pricing of data access in the country
  • The TRAI's recommendations will be followed by a proof of concept (POC) or a pilot project
  • Once a user’s device is authenticated and a payment instrument attached, wherever she or he goes, the hotspot automatically recognises the user

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) will submit its recommendations on public WiFi networks this week, Ram Sewak Sharma, the chairman of the regulatory body, said in an interview with FactorDaily.

The pricing of the public data service could be as low as two paise a megabyte (MB), which is about one-tenth the average pricing of data access in the country, according to TRAI data from last year. In other words, a user would spend under Rs 20 for a one gigabyte (GB) of data used to watch around 65 five-minute YouTube videos or Rs 2 for 100 MB used to send and receiver over 8,000 text-only WhatsApp messages.

The pricing of the public data service could be as low as two paise an MB, which is about one-tenth the average pricing of data access in the country  

The recommendations will be followed by a proof of concept (POC) or a pilot project “quite soon,” Sharma said. “We propose to do a POC of this whole concept of registered WiFi hotspots. My view is that this will become like a public data office.” The regulator envisages thousands of PDOs in the country like PCOs (short for public call offices) used to dot the length and breadth of India 15-20 years ago before mobile phones became as ubiquitous as they are today.

TRAI’s recommendations need to be accepted by the Indian government to become law.

But, before that, the telecom regulator’s recommendation will likely be challenged legally by India’s telecom service companies, or telcos, who contend that data access services can be offered only by entities licensed to do so. Telcos have to pay a one-time licence fee, share revenues, and bid for spectrum — conditions that may not be applicable to public WiFi providers.

 

“We propose to do a POC of this whole concept of registered WiFi hotspots. My view is that this will become like a public data office”
– R S Sharma, TRAI chairman  

As part of India’s efforts to increase broadband access, the TRAI had released the consultation paper last July inviting suggestions from all stakeholders for its policy on public WiFi networks. India had 162.04 million wireless and wireline broadband connections at the end of June 2016 with a speed of more than 512kbps.

The TRAI pilot project will demonstrate the architecture that the regulator is proposing, Sharma said. “The first thing is to authenticate that you are you, the second thing is that you are authorised to attach a payment instrument. Basically, you should be able to pay, so the WiFi provider should have an assurance and should be able to charge you.”

Once a user’s device is authenticated and a payment instrument — say, a debit or credit card, e-wallet etc — attached, wherever she or he goes, the hotspot automatically recognises the user and sends out a communication that a public WiFi network is available to join.

Shops, malls, cafes, or other establishments could act as WiFi hosts

Shops, malls, cafes, or other establishments could act as WiFi hosts. “Essentially, the guy who’s providing the WiFi hotspot doesn’t have to do anything except providing that service. (He has to) Keep it on and keep it connected to the backend and publish a SSID (Service Set Identifier),” Sharma said. SSID is the name assigned to a WiFi network.

“We could have rules that suppose I subscribe for (a prepaid data pack of) Rs 10 and I use only Rs 2, then Rs 8 should come back,” the TRAI chief said.

TRAI estimates a cost of around 2 paise per MB in the public WiFi networks, which is even cheaper than Reliance Jio’s data offering of 5 paise per MB.

Broadband availability and affordability assume great importance in the backdrop of the government’s push towards a digital and cashless society. During his budget speech earlier this month, finance minister Arun Jaitley announced setting up of a mission to promote cashless transactions with a target of touching 2,500 crore transactions in the year 2017-18.

The location for the pilot project to test out the public WiFi network is yet to be decided and will depend on the people who participate, Sharma said. “There are people who want to participate” in the pilot project,” he said, without divulging names.

Telecom lobby group Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has said in the past that public WiFi must be handled by licensed players. “We’ll go to court if unlicensed players are brought in,” COAI director general Rajan S Mathews had told FactorDaily last month.

Free internet activists group the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), however, believes the bureaucratic licensing regime surrounding WiFi hotspots should be relaxed. It has also urged TRAI to drop the KYC (know your customer) norm, because they “expensively and intrusively force users to authenticate their identity.” IFF argues that KYC measures are ineffective in preventing crime and terrorism, as tools like virtual private networks and proxies can easily mask the identity of an internet user.

“We could have rules that suppose I subscribe for (a prepaid data pack of) Rs 10 and I use only Rs 2, then Rs 8 should come back” — R S Sharma, TRAI chairman  

“This system of verification only makes things harder for entrepreneurs to set up hotspots, and for people to access them. It is impossible for broadband to proliferate in any significant way if TRAI insists on applying ineffective and cumbersome regulations on those who wish to setup their own hotspot,” the IFF said in a statement.

In the most publicised public WiFi rollout of its kind, search giant Google, together with the Indian Railways and the state-owned Railtel already offers free WiFi services at 100 railway stations in India, potentially allowing the 10 million people who visit or transit through them high speed access to the Internet.

Various state governments across the country have announced public WiFi initiatives as well. Last month, 500 state-sponsored WiFi hotspots went live across the city of Mumbai. By May, the number is set to go up to 1,200. Other state governments such as Delhi and Tamil Nadu too have announced plans to roll out public WiFi hotspots.

Reliance Jio last year announced it will set up one million WiFi hotspots across India by the middle of this year.

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Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.