Wi-Fi’s benefits (use of open spectrum, high-speed, rapid deployment) make it an excellent candidate for building out mainstream data networks in emerging markets like India, where cost plays a very important role. Besides, Wi-Fi is an ideal technology framework for entrepreneurs – they can go in and set up wireless hubs in neighbourhoods to provide services. We need to think of Wi-Fi networks as core to building out a connected nation. The question is how to put it together to build a bottom-up community network providing low-cost, mass market connectivity.
The first step is for the governments to ensure that the open spectrum of 2.4 Ghz and 5.7 Ghz stays that way, and can be used freely for data communications without requiring any licences. This will provide the necessary impetus for entrepreneurs to come in and start building out the networks.
The second step is for vendors to make the Wi-Fi network cards and hubs widely available. They need to think in terms of Wi-Fi as becoming a mainstream technology, with volumes which could exceed those of the developed markets, where it is one of several competing technologies. For this, they should think long-term: get the hubs out there (the “razors”) first to seed the market for the Ethernet cards (“the blades”).
The third step is for various chains to start deploying Wi-Fi. Public Call Offices (PCOs), cybercafes and post offices are there in every neighbourhood. They can serve as the initial “hotspots”. Residential and office complexes can do the same. What this does is two things: it enables connectivity at much higher-speeds than what is available today, and creates the platform for Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices.
The fourth step is for these networks to be connected together (like Boingo is doing in the US) to build out virtual wireless ISPs, enabling individuals to connect through a single login-password infrastructure. While mobility is not likely to be a key requirement in the beginning, making it easier for users to connect to wireless networks is important.
The fifth step is for the development of low-cost, mobile devices. These become the computers of tomorrow for the “bottom of the enterprise pyramid”. The end-user cost should be no more than USD 100 (Rs 5,000). While today’s cost of Wi-Fi chips does not make this possible, the cost is a function of the volumes. If emerging markets can put together a need for 10 million such units a year, prices can fall dramatically making Wi-Fi enabled low-cost, handheld computers the computer for the next billion people.
The final step in this roll-out would be for content developers and enterprises to start putting together applications which leverage the devices. One has to think of innovative ways in which millions of users can now interact together with high-speed devices. This is what 3G hopes to capitalise on. But 3G is a top-down, carrier-driven technology which will take time to roll-out, and will be much more expensive. By comparison, Wi-Fi is bottom-up and can become affordable for the masses very rapidly. It can help these nations leapfrog with a high-speed wireless infrastructure which can be an enabler for new applications and productivity enhancements. This is the real wireless revolution waiting to happen, and it will start in our neighbourhoods.