Wi-Fi to go public PCO style

TRAI plans to introduce the public Wi-Fi hotspot as accessible as the PCOs (Public Call Offices) once were. This will provide Wi-Fi access at the grassroots, and provide a stream of revenue to local shopkeepers and the unemployed youth. This will also serve the purpose of reducing the burden on the telecom spectrum, where spectrum availability is scarce to serve the connectivity to everyone. It can serve in congested urban areas, as well as in indoor locations where the signal for mobile connectivity may not be very strong.

Following the consultation paper and the comments it received, TRAI held a workshop in Bengaluru in September. The workshop was attended by stakeholders, researchers, telcos, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), payment solution firms and start-ups, Wi-Fi solution providers, Wi-Fi/mobile device makers, academia, system integrators, Network Equipment Manufacturers, Software Vendors, and government officials and other representatives from the industry. The International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore (IIIT-B) was the academic partner for the workshop. A consultation paper that was released as a result of the deliberations of that workshop, seeks inputs from stakeholders on how to deploy an interoperable and scalable nationwide public Wi-Fi network. They have asked for inputs on alternative models, what kind of regulations should be implemented, if at all, if there should be unbundling at access and backhaul level, and whether reselling of bandwidth should be permitted at the access points.

A major problem, however, with the rollout is the capacity for backhaul networks which funnel the traffic from the access points to the national backbone. In the event of its insufficiency, there will be a serious crunch for high speed internet access. IIT-B suggests a multi-hop mesh based middle-mile network, across the regions with low spectrum usage, to boost backhaul capacity.

Authentication is a cumbersome process and requires a one-time password on access. Compatibility of SIM cards can be a problem for tourists and foreigners. Seamless hand-offs from one network to another is a challenge. Providing power to all the Wi-Fi hotspots is also a problem area which can be tackled with some serious initiatives from the government for upgrading the infrastructure.

Matured monetization models for seamless payments is still an area of concern. This can be tackled with a unified authentication and payment infrastructure which would leverage the national open Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) implemented for Aadhaar, eKYC (e-Know Your Customer) and Unified Payment Interface (UPI).Some of the spectrum in the globally harmonized band for Wi-Fi has not been released in India yet.

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The suggested model has five components:

A registry for automated electronic validation, with information on all hotspot providers.

It is a static registry which will allow self registration through fully automated electronic validation of entity through their CA certificate and PAN and have the ability to suspend or blacklist a user.

The hotspot providers (shopkeepers, individuals and anyone to everyone) themselves are registered companies.

They should have a valid PAN number and must be confirming to the governing rules laid out by TRAI under this framework.They will be registered with entity name,contact details,public key to validate their n/w SSID(s) and location.

There are support services to hotspot providers, which can be in terms of software or support (similar to internet cafes).

It can be any software/service provider either local or global.

A registration service which authenticates users.

It can be any wallet or unified Payment Interface(UPI) app provider. It will have features to manage KYC(mobile or Aadhar)backed profile and easy accessibility to users. They should provide public key and be listed on TRAI. It will have entity name,contact details,public keyapp link, etc.

A payment service manages the financial transactions.

It is basically entities providing APIs and SDKs to Hotspot providers, to integrate, connect and collect payment using wallet and UPI.

The proposed system involves two flows.

In Registration Flow, users install an app from one of the preferred Registration Providers which allows users to create a profile with verified mobile/ Aadhaar as they normally do with wallet/UPI apps.

In Subscription flow, whenever users want to connect to public Wi-Fi hotspot using this scheme, they can open their wallet/UPI app, browse Wi-Fi hotspots (app may show matching SSID from registry), and click connect. The app creates an encrypted token (that contains any data requiredby that application’s server, optional list of MAC-IDs, etc.), base-64 encodes it, and creates a standard URI and passes it on to captive portal in a standardized way.

The app then connects to the captive portal and passes the encoded URI. Captive portal then extracts the provider ID, encrypts the app token with the hotspot provider private key, Uses the authentication URL of the provider (obtained and cached from TRAI registry) and proceeds with the authentication process. The registration provider validates the token. After validation, the registration provider should return the relevant following structure back to hotspot provider.

Once, Wi-Fi hotspot provider obtains the profile and list of devices, it should allow all devices, including the one that initiated the connection, to be connected within the same session. This allows multiple devices to be connected without multiple payments and repeat authorizations.

Nation-wide deployment of public Wi-Fi networks needs to include many hyper local partners and for this a partnership model for public Wi-Fi has also been proposed. The best way to do so would be to encourage deployment of public Wi-Fi networks by local entrepreneurs with support from ISP/ telco/ content providers. The systems should be easy to install, maintenance free and of low cost. It should include venue owners as an important entity in the value chain and build sustainable business models including share of revenue from Wi-Fi services, local content delivery services. Local entrepreneurs and venue owners cannot take up the whole cost of Wi-Fi infrastructure (Capex/Opex). Invent a co-investment model with share of investment by all stakeholders including, ISPs, telcos, venue owners, content providers and advertisers. The revenue splitting can also be done accordingly.

So in short, A user will be able to connect multiple devices, move between hotspots, and manage payments in a simple manner after the implementation of the model. The model proposed by the government involves many hyper local partners (venue owners, such as stadiums, shopping malls, shopkeepers and hotels) for the successful rollout of a ubiquitous nationwide Wi-Fi. Telecom companies, internet service providers, mobile wallet companies, credit card companies, banks, content providers, application providers are all also envisioned to be hyper local partners for the rollout.

Public Wi-Fi networks, along with 4G and 5G are an opportunity to leapfrog into the next generation of the internet. The connectivity is not required for people as of now. However, Smart cities, connected cars and the Internet of Things will need public Wi-Fi networks to function.

Mumbai is rapidly rolling out public Wi-Fi hotspots , with innovative solutions such as using the existing CCTV networks to provide the Wi-Fi connectivity. The government has introduced public Wi-Fi hotspots in 25 cities this year. Sundar Pichai had promised roll out of high speed public Wi-Fi hotspots in 100 railway stations at the Google for India event last year.

This will mark a successful implementation of the vision ‘Digital India’

– UJAL