Can Public WiFi Spark India’s Digital Revolution?

Public WiFi is a springboard for the digital India story that is unfolding right here before us. Widespread Internet connectivity, growth in mobility, combined with India’s technological prowess, will soon envelop the nation with a digital footprint:

In-charge of almost a seventh of the world’s population, India has a lot to offer: a wealth of untapped potential, tremendous talent and a youth yearning for knowledge and innovation. We can well imagine the might of this nation, if its resources are productively channelized for economic development and growth

To harness all the power of a nation in the 21st century, an ecosystem of digital connectivity is vital. Despite holding a valiant second spot in global rankings for countries with most Internet users, India sees the lowest penetration rate among the top 10 countries: a meager 35 per cent, compare this with 87 per cent penetration in USA and 92 per cent in UK, and the gap becomes even more glaring. However, this is not a demand issue. Just take a look at the rapid uptake of mobile telephony in India. India is already the second largest smartphone market in the world, and is projected to overtake the US by 2019, with a whopping 650 million smartphones. Earlier this year, India crossed the 1 billion mark for mobile phone users. 

However, the upsurge in mobility is in dire need of connectivity supplements. In a cost conscious, developing economy, creating easy to access, free WiFi hubs can offer respite from the drought of connectivity and fuel the knowledge economy. Dispersing free public Internet to serve more than a billion people sounds like a forlorn dream – but initiatives such as RailWire WiFi, Bharat Net, Smart City Projects, among many others are helping turn this dream in to a reality. Let’s take a closer look.

‘RailWire’ the alliance of RailTel and Google, has set up free WiFi service at over 300 major railway stations, benefitting over 8 million distinct users per month, many of whom cannot afford private Internet. Over the next few months, all 400 major stations will offer free WiFi. So far, the response to this free Wi-Fi program has been immensely positive. In fact, large groups of people, including students are seen “hanging out” at the stations to use free Internet and explore the world of information. To create nationwide digital inclusion, the Government of India has decided to bring all 5000 wayside rural railway stations under Wi-Fi coverage, within the next two years. 

The Government has also decided to provide free Wi-Fi spots at all 250,000 Panchayats within the next two years, enabled by ‘Bharat Net’, an ambitious project aiming to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to all Panchayats in the country. In phase-I, Wi-Fi facilities are being offered in 100,000 Panchayats, wherein optical fiber cable access is available from Bharat Net. Public WiFi is also an essential part of the Government’s Smart City Project that aims to establish multiple WiFi hotspots in over 113 cities. Furthermore, TRAI recently issued a recommendation for providing low cost Wi-Fi by creating a back end integration of Wi-Fi hotspots of various service providers - bringing us closer to the goal of Internet ubiquity in the country.

The World Bank has noted that a 10 per cent increase in Internet penetration leads to a 1.4 per cent increase in GDP. Let’s look at a few examples to capture the transformative nature of Internet access. 

Digital literacy- Public WiFi is an essential driver for India’s e-economy. E-banking, e-health, e-learning and e-governance are few of the many areas where India is surging in digital development. However, digital innovations are unusable without Internet access and digital literacy. Public WiFi solves this problem by giving citizens an easy entry-point to the e-economy.

Intellectual capital- Current affairs, algebra, world history, golf tricks – is there any subject that is not covered on the Internet today? Have a question? Want to learn new skills? The Internet has got it all. Internet access is a big step forward in creating a society that is more aware, more informed and most of all, digitally inclusive – a society that resides in the information age.

Entrepreneurship- As technology and Internet consumption grows, more and more entrepreneurs are incentivized to introduce digital innovations and smart apps. Internet connectivity does not just influence business growth and personal lives; it stimulates the spirit of invention, which in turn propels economic progress.

E-Commerce- Common Service Centers (CSC) in rural areas (for example, railway stations and panchayats), with the help of free Internet can fuel the growth of e-commerce. People can access online stores and sell or purchase goods, with the assistance of a VLE (VLE is a Village Level Entrepreneur who is a point person that helps the community learn and access digital services). This initiative is already being piloted in a few remote parts of the country. 

Public WiFi is a springboard for the digital India story that is unfolding right here before us. Widespread Internet connectivity, growth in mobility, combined with India’s technological prowess, will soon envelop the nation with a digital footprint: a footprint that will be symbolic with innovation, social inclusion and empowerment of our human capital. 

Sources for metrics:

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house