With affordable 4G available to everyone, is Public WiFi still relevant? We talk to Mr. Natraj Akella from Tata Teleservices about how India will get connected
Public WiFi in India has seen a lot of activity recently with Google's involvement. On the other hand, Reliance Jio has created a big stir and people have gone head over heels to get their hands on it. When the Government is advocating a digital, connected India, which one of these two will solve the connectivity issue? Will the general population of India choose 4G over public WiFi?
Digit: With the advent of affordable 4G plans with reliable speeds with Jio, is public Wi-Fi still a necessity?
Mr. Natraj: Earlier it was largely believed that 4G would make Wi-Fi obsolete. However, its importance has only increased due to an explosion of higher-consumption devices and the need to stay connected. In fact, cellular devices utilizing Wi-Fi and femtocell offloading shouldered 51% of all mobile traffic in 2015. This is expected to only increase. Availability of good, fast internet connectivity and compatible devices at affordable prices has been a dampener for data growth in the country. WiFI can bridge the gap. WiFi is now evolving into a carrier-grade service that complements and supplements the cellular networks and thus enriches the overall mobile data experience. Simply put, cellular (3G/LTE) provides mobility and Wi-Fi addresses localized high data-rate access.
More importantly, using cellular and Wi-Fi together in a mobile device has now become a customer expectation. Not only should they work together, but they should be enabled to work together seamlessly at the switch of a button leading to investments in Hetnets. Also with the majority of mobile traffic either originating or terminating indoors today, Wi-Fi is considered as a robust access technology for mobile data offload. Back at home, given the low internet penetration, affordability of smartphones, high spectrum charges and issues around fiber rollout; WiFi will continue to play a pivotal role in powering the aspirations of millions of natives in the Digital India.
Lastly, WiFi should be viewed along with other customer experience and engagement investments that Telcos undertake. There is always scope to innovate here. Besides, new standards and technologies like LTE – U and LAA are being explored and deployed to take the coexistence and synergy with LTE access to the next level.
Digit: Public locations in rural areas don't seem to be big on plans for public Wi-Fi. Railway stations and other locations being selected are mostly in cities or towns, where people are already using mobile data for most of their purposes. Isn't this a redundancy that needs to be solved?
Mr. Natraj: WiFi has to be viewed as a complementary network that coexists with cellular networks. As stated earlier, cellular (3G/LTE) provides mobility and Wi-Fi addresses localized high data-rate access. Each has a role to play and need to work together seamlessly. Secondly, we need a good fiber backbone and last mile connectivity in the rural and far flung areas to be able to provide a good data experience. This is under way through various public-private initiatives.
Currently, the primary use case for WiFi deployment for telcos has been in areas where the data consumption is high and there is a need to add capacity, what is popularly called as offloading. Hence public Wi-Fi services have found their way into dense high-footfall areas with a waiting time across India like Airports, Markets, Malls, Stadiums, Educational institutes, Transits, Retail chains and cafes etc. We believe gradually this will expand to other towns and cities where there is good fiber connectivity and demand exists.
Digit: As mentioned earlier, Tata Docomo has deployed public WiFi at Connaught Place, New Delhi. How is good connectivity ensured over a big area like that, without the usual signal drops and poor speeds?
Mr. Natraj: The professional and business criticality of robust Wi-Fi connectivity in a public area such as CP creates a different kind of demand on digital infrastructure. Supported by our wholly-owned national fiber backbone, we have tried to provision, faster speeds, stable and seamless connectivity at Connaught Place. The key here is to design and own all the components important for providing a world-class service experience.
At TTL we treat WiFi as an extension of our Mobile data network. So the same amount of planning, design, and configuration is done and carrier grade equipment from international vendors has been deployment. RF planning and periodic optimization is an essential component of our operations process which ensures that good connectivity and speeds. We have a 24 X 7 NOC that monitors all the access points on a real-time basis and triggers alerts and alarms. We also ensure that our WiFi is compliant with all the rules and security guidelines prescribed by authorities so that we can provide a safe and secure access to our customers. All this and many more leads to a good experience.
Digit: Abroad, in places like San Francisco, Wi-Fi hotspots are present across the city and there is seamless switching between them from the user side. How exactly does that work? Looking at where we are headed with public Wi-Fi for our country, are such technological advancements being implemented here as well?
Mr. Natraj: We are constantly working towards delivering a seamless user experience and working with the best of partners to stay abreast of the latest developments in WiFi like NGN, VoWiFi etc. There is a lot of work being done by Wireless Broadband Association (WBA) both in India and abroad on NGN and other standards to make networks interoperable and seamless and build an ecosystem. We partner with such industry bodies and exchange ideas and information and implement whatever is possible.
Digit: Even though this is helpful for the public, the public WiFi provider (in this case Tata Docomo) also needs to keep it profitable to sustain it. What exactly is the revenue model here?
Mr. Natraj: This is an area we are working upon. We support multiple charging models for subscriptions. These plans can be bought online. In addition to the above, TTL customers can use WiFi from their own data package and / or buy packs through our app Tata Docomo WiFi Wizard. Basis partner and customer feedback, we are evaluating a few over the top monetization models like advertisements, content partnerships, and location-based services. At TTL our belief is that monetization will follow automatically if we are able to give a superlative customer experience and expand our WiFi footprint. This is currently our focus.
Digit: Currently, what is the market share of different providers in public WiFi? How does Google's entry into the same affect the market?
Mr. Natraj: We do not comment on the market share. But Google’s entry in the space depicts the potential of the public Wi-Fi and will galvanize the market. A country of our size requires a few million hotspots which in turn requires lots of investment and many more serious players with deep pockets. There is enough and more headroom available in terms of growth for all players and access technologies. The whole data story in our view is in a nascent stage in our country. The number of customers and consumption can only go northward.
According to a report by market research company Informa Telecoms and Media, public Wi-Fi hotspot numbers are set to grow from 1.3 to 5.8 million globally in the next four years, this clearly proves the phenomenal growth the sector will witness.
Digit: Is better public Wi-Fi the answer to a connected India or is it better Individual connectivity?
Mr. Natraj: It is, in fact, a combination of both. Public Wi-Fi systems will play a very important role in the Digital India and Smart City initiatives. Connectivity is the first step to the success of digital India and public Wi-Fi can provide the first taste of online and digital services to many consumers. With changing trends, the requirement for constant data connectivity will be critical for consumers. With the dependence of millennials on mobile devices as the go-to source for receiving (and sharing) everything; connected public spaces are fundamental to smart city initiatives. Since last mile connectivity is a huge challenge in a diverse country like India, a combination of public Wi-Fi and mobile data through (2G/ 3G/ 4G) works as the best solution.
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