The fast-paced growth of wireless data usage has made it essential for service providers to consider various avenues for delivering high quality data services. According to studies conducted by Cisco, mobile data consumption is estimated to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 61 per cent between 2013 and 2018. To resolve cellular network congestion while providing for capacity, operators have been offloading traffic to Wi-Fi networks. They are also looking into the monetisation of the Wi-Fi segment owing to the scarcity of spectrum and the lack of infrastructure in the face of rising data demand.
Public Wi-Fi gives service providers an opportunity to offer on-the-move data services by offloading the data traffic experienced in crowded areas. It also enables them to provide wider coverage, allowing more users to avail of services. The Indian telecom industry is anticipating a massive surge in the uptake of public Wi-Fi, as a result of which several players are trying out various business models to test service uptake and take stock of the challenges associated with setting up the required infrastructure.
tele.net takes a look at the business models through which public Wi-Fi can be provided, the associated deployment challenges, and the emerging landscape for the segment in India…
The most commonly adopted business model across the globe is Wi-Fi offloading as a means of decongesting networks in high data traffic areas. In India, telecom operators are increasingly opting for this model to resolve issues pertaining to network capacity and call drops. Vodafone India and Bharti Airtel recently launched Wi-Fi applications with the aim of shifting data traffic away from their cellular networks. Both companies are setting up Wi-Fi hotspots either by themselves or through their joint venture, FireFly Networks. The present focus is on cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru, where data consumption is growing at a very high rate due to the wider use of 3G and 4G services.
Another model that has been successful in some global markets is the provision of white-label services. Under this, service providers set up a Wi-Fi network that is utilised by other organisations on a white label basis. For instance, in the US, coffee chain Starbucks has been using the network deployed by AT&T and Google. This model has proved to be quite successful for high density venues of different types, such as malls and restaurants. In India, these services are offered by operators like Ozone Networks. Ozone’s first nationwide contract was with Barista to offer Wi-Fi services at outlets across the country. The company operates the network for the duration of the contract and also monetises that particular location with its partners.
There are various monetisation models that involve the use of Wi-Fi for providing location-based services, and also for advertising. For instance, before accessing a free network, a user could be required to watch a sponsor’s advertisement. Apart from this, there are community Wi-Fi models in which the home Wi-Fi gateway is opened for passers-by, allowing for greater coverage. The operator gains add-itional public Wi-Fi usage without needing to set up hotspots in the area. According to reports, Wi-Fi services offered under this model by operators like Deutsche Telekom, British Telecom and AT&T are popular among small and medium enterprises across their areas of operations.
Thus, there are several models for offering public Wi-Fi services, some of which have been explored in India. The industry believes that as the country’s Wi-Fi ecosystem evolves, newer innovative business models could emerge. For instance, Ozone Networks is reportedly in discussions with various telecom operators that are keen on providing public Wi-Fi services under a shared revenue structure.
The present challenges associated with the deployment of public Wi-Fi hotspots are largely technical in nature. For instance, global operators have faced legacy challenges in shifting to more secure and seamless Wi-Fi networks. This is likely to be less in India as there will be more greenfield Wi-Fi deployment. Currently, India has only about 3,000 hotspots, as compared to 50 million worldwide.
The other challenge pertains to the transfer of data traffic from wireless to fixed line networks. To do this, operators have to develop their own backhaul to transfer this traffic, or partner with other operators that have these networks. According to the “Carrier Wi-Fi: State of the Market 2014” report by Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), several technology developments need to take place to make Wi-Fi a full-fledged tool for carriers, and not just an offload platform. These include the full integration of Wi-Fi into mobile small cell base stations without compromising the performance of either technology, Wi-Fi support within carrier-grade operations support systems, and seamless exchanges between Wi-Fi cells as well as between Wi-Fi and cellular networks to support data streaming and voice services to offer a consistent user experience.
Another barrier that has led to the lack of operator interest in Wi-Fi is the absence of early returns on investments. Thus, there is a need to generate consumer awareness about the presence of these services. “Having a long-term strategy not only provides benefits in the form of high returns on investment, but also in terms of customer retention,” explains Shrikant Shenwai, chief executive officer (CEO), WBA. “In the case of wireless telecom services, a consumer directly connects to a network and avails of the service. However, in a public Wi-Fi architecture, a consumer does not enter a shop or outlet thinking that there will be a Wi-Fi facility. Thus, if there is no awareness about the location, it becomes challenging to ensure the effective utilisation of our networks,” adds Sanjeev Sarin, CEO, Ozone Networks.
Identifying networks and typing in user IDs and passwords is another major challenge faced by consumers. WBA is working on addressing this issue through its Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) programme, which allows devices to automatically connect to networks by using credentials like SIM cards. The NGH programme also supports roaming across different types of Wi-Fi networks and service providers.
In India, the deployment as well as uptake of public Wi-Fi has been increasing gradually. According to Ozone Networks, the traffic on its network has more than doubled over the past eight months and the consumer response has been positive. For instance, an average of 22,000-25,000 consumers connect to its network at Mumbai airport, which experiences a footfall of 90,000-100,000 people per day.
Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has been setting up public Wi-Fi hotspots in a big way. Over the past year, it has set up Wi-Fi hotspots across various tourist destinations as part of the Digital India programme. It recently stated that it would be setting up about 40,000 hotspots by 2018 with a total investment of Rs 60 billion. Several other operators like Tata Teleservices Limited, Telenor India and Sistema Shyam TeleServices Limited are anticipating a surge in Wi-Fi uptake as well. Meanwhile, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, which is planning to provide pan-Indian 4G services, is already offering public Wi-Fi in Kolkata to tap the opportunities in this segment.
Apart from the emergence of a strong business case for public Wi-Fi in India, it is also becoming an essential part of the Digital India and Smart Cities initiatives. Recently, Google announced a partnership with RailTel for providing Wi-Fi across 500 train stations, making it the largest Wi-Fi project in the country. Meanwhile, the setting up of 100 smart cities will open up avenues for public Wi-Fi deployment as several issues of waste management, sustainable energy, parking, traffic, security and surveillance can be addressed effectively through the technology.
The transition to the internet of things and machine-to-machine communications will also require the extensive use of Wi-Fi. Thus, the market for public Wi-Fi in India is set to take off, considering the ample opportunities and demand for deployment. The country is still in a greenfield deployment phase, which will allow service providers to incorporate lessons from global counterparts and enable rapid expansion.