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Indian telecom regulator invites participation in public Wi-Fi pilot to provide affordable and widespread access to data

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has issued an invitation to entities to be part of a pilot to establish Nation-wide pay-as-you-go Public Data Offices (PDOs), which would provide Wi-Fi hotspots, retailing data packages to the public at low prices. Data costs on mobile Internet plans are still too high for many Indians, who ration their cellular data usage.

The project document from TRAI notes that  there are only 31,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots in India, compared to 13 million in France, and 10 million in the United States of America. Installing more routers  would not be enough. To offer a seamless, simplified, consistent experience to end users, both residents and international travelers, across hotspots from various providers, TRAI wants to unubndle authentication, payment and accounting from hardware and software running on the Access Point.

This will allow small entrepreneurs such as tea shops, to set up and maintain Access Points, while  device manufacturers, payment companies, ISPs/Telcos and Consumer Internet companies can provide the remaining pieces to set up PDOs.

What are PDOs and PDOAs

Previously, in its ‘Recommendations on Proliferation of Broadband Through Public Wi-Fi Networks’ published in March 2017, TRAI described PDOs as a model similar to the Public Calling Offices or PCOs, which are basically prepaid or postpaid public payphones which brought long-distance calling to the masses in India and cyber cafes, which provided widespread Internet access.

In order to replicate this model for public Wi-Fi, and also address the problem of over-regulation faced by cyber cafes, TRAI is considering a model wherein a Pubic Data Office Aggregator (PDOA) can provide last mile Wi-Fi services and small entrepreneurs would set up Public Data Offices (PDOs). PDOs will provide the venue for the public Wi-Fi deployment.

PDOAs may mulithome (connecting a host or a computer network to more than one network) bandwidth from multiple Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and sell them to customers at a retail level. ISPs may charge differential “commercial’ tariffs from PDOAs. Similar to the cyber cafe model, PDOAs (but not PDOs) may be mandated to be registered with a relevant registration agency (as prescribed by the DoT) and the registration requirements could have built-in obligations to ensure that e-KYC, authentication and record-keeping requirements are fulfilled to take care of security requirements.

The PDOAs would be required to maintain a list, with details as may be specified by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), of all the PDOs being serviced by the PDOAs registered with it. The PDOs may not own or deploy any infrastructure and may not have the means or resources to actually implement a seamless interoperable system on their own.

Directly permitting small entrepreneurs to provide data would entail resale of data which is currently not permitted. Introduction of PDOs along with an aggregator (PDOA) would entail resale of data services, as is already allowed in case of cyber cafe model.

This proposed model was derived from consultations initiated in July last year. It is expected to achieve proliferation of Wi-Fi systems across the country, while solving concerns of authentication, payments and authorisation for public Wi-Fi access.

Vision of current initiative and objectives of the pilot

The vision of the current initiative is to establish an Open Architecture based Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (WANI), such that the following are accomplished:

  1. Any entity (company, proprietorship, societies, non-profits, etc.) should easily be able to setup a paid public Wi-Fi Access Point.
  2. Users should be able to easily discover WANI compliant SSIDs (Service Set IDentifiers, which are the name assigned to a Wi-Fi network. All devices in the network must use this case-sensitive name to communicate over Wi-Fi, which is a text string up to 32 bytes long), do one click authentication and payment, and connect one or more devices in single session.
  3. The experience for a small entrepreneur to purchase, self-register, set-up and operate a PDO must be simple, low-touch and maintenance-free.
  4. The products available for consumption should begin from “sachet-sized”, i.e. low denominations ranging from INR 2 to INR 20, etc.
  5. Providers (PDO provider, Access Point hardware/software, user authentication and KYC provider, and payment provider) are unbundled to eliminate silos and closed systems. This allows multiple parties in the ecosystem to come together and enable large scale adoption.

For the pilot, short-term objectives  have been set. The pilot intends to demonstrate that unbundling of services reduces rework and speeds up development and prove that multi-provider, inter-operable, collaborative model increases the overall innovation in the system, dismantles monopolies and encourages passing of benefits to end user.

It will also test the specifications in real life conditions, and suggest improvements. A business model will be jointly developed that fairly allocates value to each provider. Integrated payment methods will also be tested, such as coupons (purchased using cash by user or gifted to user), credit/debit cards, net banking, e-wallets, and the Unified Payments Interface (a system that powers multiple bank accounts into a single mobile application of any participating bank, merging several banking features, seamless fund routing & merchant payment).

Entities invited for participation

Any Indian entity having a PAN number (Permanent Account Number is a code that acts as an identification for Indian entities who pay Income Tax)  wanting to provide one (PDO) or more (PDO Aggregator) hotspots to public using either free or paid model can be a hotspot provider.

Consumer internet app providers can create Internet applications to manage user’s KYC (mobile or Aadhaar, the unique national ID) backed profile, allow all digital payment methods, and allow users to easily connect to hotspots.

Software or service providers who are providing necessary software, hardware, services, and/or support to Hotspot Providers, will also be a part of the pilot.

The last date for application is 25th July. Details of the project are available here.

Featured imageMpandeCC BY-SA 3.0

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