TECH TALK: City Wi-Fi Networks: Unwiring India

One of the challenges facing India for last mile connectivity to homes and offices is the stranglehold that the government owned telcos (BSNL and MTNL) have. While both are now pushing DSL to the home, the pace of deployment is not as rapid as India needs. In this context, what is interesting are the plans by many cities in the US to deploy wireless networks to provide a blanket of connectivity. This has two implications for India: first, we should be looking at similar technologies and plans; and second, the US deployment (along with usage in other international cities) will drive the cost of equipment lower making it much more affordable. Given India’s lack of legacy network infrastructure, city Wi-Fi networks make a lot of sense.

Recently, even as San Francisco announced that Google and Earthlink had won the bid to provide Wi-Fi across the city, Intel announced that it is working with Pune Municipal Corporation towards building the first Wi-Fi Indian city. The Economic Times wrote about the initiative:

The Pune municipality and Intel have reportedly teamed up to envelop 400 sq km of the town in Wi-Fi connectivity. That it will make Pune the first city to be so enabled is just one aspect of this development.

What is more important is the implication this development holds for telecom policy and regulation and for competition between different cities fighting to be the most attractive IT destination. This proposed Wi-Fi network, in one stroke, forces home the message that it is foolish to bet solely on traditional telecom networks.

Not only does a Wi-Fi enabled city offer subscribers wireless access to the internet all over, it also opens the doors to a widespread voice network based on voice-over-internet protocol (VoiP). Handsets that tune into Wi-Fi networks for VoiP calls have already been launched abroad. For traditional access networks, whether fixed or mobile, this surely is bad news.

That the Pune project will start off with an initial investment of just Rs 7 crore clearly implies that newer technologies such as Wi-Fi and Wi-max can perhaps be a cheaper option for rural telecom expansion.

India needs to leapfrog into a world of ubiquitous broadband connectivity and we need all the options we can get. Whether the last mile is DSL, cable, Metro Ethernet, fibre, or Wi-Fi, the next 12-18 months need to see Indian cities enveloped in connectivity. This digital infrastructure is as important as the physical infrastructure that is being developed. It is in this context that we need to look closely at Wi-Fi and its mesh variants.

Tomorrow: The US Scene

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.