A recent newspaper article announcing the setting up of the world’s longest free wi-fi zone (20 km long) in Patna, capital of the state of Bihar (one of the most economically backward states of India, and not one known for its prowess in technology) took everyone by surprise. If the initiative has indeed moved from plan to actual implementation and operation, this would be an amazing development as, besides the wi-fi, the Bihar chief minister has unveiled another scheme: the setting up of a network of citywide CCTV cameras. The two initiatives, when combined, would constitute a powerful all-round public surveillance mechanism that can be used by law enforcement agencies like the police to help check crime.

But so far there is no news about who the government has tied up with for the initiative, or the method for signing in to access the service. There is no information on what speeds are expected to be provided, time limits for free usage by consumers, or other limits on data consumption. When the free limits are exhausted will the service be available at additional cost? How much, and with pre-paid or post-paid options? What security standards are being adopted on the network to mitigate unauthorised access, break-ins, etc?

Wi-fi is the popular technology that allows an electronic device like a computer, mobile phone, game console or camera to connect to the internet Wirelessly using radio waves, and to exchange data. The Wi-Fi Alliance defines wi-fi as any “wireless local area network (WLAN) with products that are based on IEEE 802.11 standards“, of which there are many variants, the latest being 80211n with data rates going up to 150 m/bits. Upcoming standards include the 802.11ad (or wi-gigs) which promise speeds of up to 7Gs.  Wi-fi or hotspot coverage can comprise an area as small as a  room or as large as several square miles, achieved by using multiple overlapping access points, the most popular being the mesh network which preempts total network failure even if one access point breaks down somewhere.

Wi-fi hotspots are now found in homes, offices and in commercial and public spaces like airports, hotels, coffee shops, college and school campuses, railway stations, parks and even streets. But the Patna wi-fi network will be one of the first in India to be set up by the state or city government, known globally as a municipal wireless network.

Countries around the world are going out of their way to increase internet/broadband penetration for a variety of reasons: access to the internet brings information and services straight to the people; it is a powerful communication tool; it constitutes a marketplace where people find work opportunities and conduct work and business; finally, it allows for more accessible and transparent governance. It has been established that a 10% increase in broadband penetration leads to a 1% rise in GDP. And so, internet in the hands of the people directly correlates to increased prosperity.

From a policy perspective municipal and town authorities are starting to realise that provision of wi-fi services to citizens is almost as critical as the provision of basic amenities like water, electricity, roads, transportation, healthcare and infrastructure. Wi-fi access allows people to  avail of services. It also projects a city’s futuristic outlook and thereby attracts more investments into the area.

Of course city administrations realise that internet services cannot be limited to those with the ability to pay a high price for them. Thus the interest in making internet access a universal service.

The idea of cheap and/or free community access began to gain ground in the early-2000s with cities around the world announcing plans to set up citywide wi-fi mesh networks. Many were subsequently set up, some succeeded, others failed to take-off.

In 2005, Mysore became the second city in the world after Jerusalem to be wi-fi-enabled. It was followed by Sunnyvale in California, and then London. In 2006, plans were afoot to make Pune a wi-fi city but nothing came of it. No other city in India has followed the Mysore example, though Bangalore does boast free wi-fi hotspots called Namma WiFi, on MG Road, Brigade Road and other locations at Shanthinagar, Yeshwanthpur, Koramangala and CMH Road in Indiranagar, according to Medianama. Some major metros have operator-driven schemes targeting specific public spaces, but they are all commercially driven. Indian Railways has floated a proposal to provide internet services on select trains.

A point to remember is that although such wi-fi models claim to be ‘free’, nothing is further from the truth. I do not subscribe to the completely ‘free’ model, which is unworkable and/or unsustainable in the long run. The emphasis should be on universal access, not free access, for someone has to pay to build the facility and maintain, operate and provide the service.

‘Free’ wi-fi are really hotspots accessible to anyone who walks into a zone with a wi-fi-enabled device, and therefore ‘free to access’.

Perhaps one reason for the ‘free’ moniker is that wi-fi hotspots are relatively cheap to establish compared to carrier-grade networks, as the 802.11 standards mostly use spectrum in the 2.4 and 5 Ghz band which is unlicensed. That means the operators have not paid a huge spectrum fee for it. (Over time, wi-fi chipsets will become cheaper and will be built into most devices.) Therefore, one does not have to pay to enter hotspots and one is ‘free’ to access the internet according to the terms applicable. Even if usage is free, the cost is probably built into the endless cups of coffee the person may drink there!

A provider offering internet access in these hotspots is paying to use the bandwidth that we consume; this has to be paid for along with the initial capital cost of setting up the network.

With a view to propagating universal internet access, municipalities can pay a company to set up a network out of their budgets. But it is not their core job to operate and run the service. An ISP does this for them in line with the public private partnership model.

A variety of cost recovery models have been followed, with mixed results. Some owners provide the network for limited use at no cost, beyond which time or data consumption-based charges start to apply. Free time is often subsidised as a promotional cost by the service-provider or recovered through advertisements.

Municipalities with an eye on universal internet access have to remember that often a large part of the city population is poor, with no ability to set up a network let alone pay for use of the internet. To draw this section into the universal access framework, municipalities are starting to look at investing the capital needed to set up networks in poor and low-income localities. They therefore own the wi-fi networks, but the services are run by service-providers who can be mandated to offer low-cost internet access schemes for the needy, whilst charging normal to slightly higher rates to those who can pay, and/or recovering some costs through advertisements.

Another option is for municipal authorities to tie up with local business associations that may offer to fully or partially pick up the operating cost as part of their collective CSR initiatives.

The city of Minneapolis which is covered by Minneapolis Wireless is one successful model of wi-fi connectivity. Conceived in 2003, by 2010 almost the entire city was networked. The project is even reported to be profitable, with a $1.2 million surplus generated through roughly 20,000 subscribers charged at $20 a month for access. The city also benefitted by being able to efficiently mobilise emergency response services during calamities.

On the design front, citywide wi-fi networks could pose a challenge in terms of accessing public infrastructure in order to set up nodes for effective coverage. Also, the services offered must be reliable, as any degradation in quality (during times of heavy usage or limited bandwidth) could undermine their efficacy.

India does not have a great track record when it comes to public wi-fi. Despite countless ambitious announcements, there has been very little success in terms of delivery. Since the internet is part of India’s telecom regulatory regime, and in effect a central subject, states and cities have not wholeheartedly embraced the idea of making internet access and services a priority. This needs to change.

Amitabh Singhal is Director, Telxess Consulting Services Pvt Ltd, Board Director, .ORG, The Public Interest Registry, founder and former president of ISP Association of India, and member of the Working Group on Internet Proliferation and Governance, Department of Information Technology. The views expressed here are personal.