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The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has taken upon the task to explore the possibilities of proliferation of broadband in the country through public WiFi networks, and one of the bottlenecks in the plan, as highlighted by the service providers, remains a lack of clarity regarding right of way principles. While a lot has been spoken about on the issue, the Centre is yet to publish any guidelines on the same.
The right of way norms, which would be framed under the Indian Telegraph Act, would enable Indian internet service providers to obtain land from state departments and local bodies in a time-bound manner for setting up of their networks including towers and underground fibre. In its strategic plan for 2011-15, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had identified the need for evolving a uniform policy to address right of way issues as one of the key factors that could influence the growth of the telecom sector in the country.
In March, the DoT had issued a draft policy document seeking comments on the right of way issue. A senior DoT official had then said that the draft policy proposed that if a company did not get permission from state governments within two months, it would be considered as deemed approval.
In response to the Trai’s consultation paper on public wi-fi, several operators have submitted that getting ‘right of way’ permissions would become a major hindrance in rolling out of public WiFi networks.
“Deployment of WiFi hotspot requires adequate mechanism for backhaul of the data connectivity from the hotspot location. The inconsistent RoW (right of way) guidelines, exiting in various municipal and other local bodies jurisdictions, are a major impediment for proliferation of public WiFi services. Therefore, promulgation of uniform RoW guidelines would go a long way in promoting public WiFi services,” Reliance Communications said in its letter to the regulator.
“Clearances are required to be taken from multiple agencies such as advance clearance from resident welfare associations (RWAs) in case of residential areas, safety certificate, clearance from pollution control authorities and fire authorities, thereby leading to huge delays in implementation of solutions,” Idea Cellular said in its letter.
One of the other concern revolving around the right of way issue, as raised by these operators, including the smaller service providers was the fees charged by local bodies such as the municipality for granting the right of way permissions.
“Right of way costs to extend the backhaul/internet bandwidth to the hotspot location are found to be prohibitively high in Tier-I/Tier-II/Tier-III cities and towns as notified by the respective state governments and municipalities,” said QuadGen WiFi Operations Pvt Ltd.
According to the prevalent conditions, some major states like Gujarat and Kerala levy additional annual rental charge from companies apart from the one-time charge paid for laying down telecom infrastructure beneath the public streets. Reportedly, the Mumbai municipal authority earns approximately Rs 2,000 crore annually through the fees for right of way permissions. Some states are also said to demand free bandwidth from operators for government bodies.
Even though the cost issue is a major burden for smaller WiFi operators, it has also found itself as a bottleneck for some of the bigger companies. Newly launched Reliance Jio Infocomm told the sector regulator that rolling out of WiFi services required deployment of WiFi access points, as well as the last-mile connectivity of the hotspot location to the service provider’s core network.
This last mile connectivity is traditionally provided by operators through the optic fibre network. “Rollout of last mile is expensive due to the expenses required to obtain right of way, and is also time consuming due to delays in permissions and approvals. This can only be addressed by the uniform RoW policy across the country/state,” Jio said.
Essentially, the Trai consultation aims to explore the possibility of a sustainable public WiFi model both in form of a single independent network, as well as with interoperability between different mobile networks, considering that the models deployed hitherto both by private and state-owned firms have largely remained unsuccessful.
In its paper, citing data from iPass and Maravedis Rethink, Trai has said that India had 31,518 WiFi hotspots in the country, and to reach the global benchmark of one hotspot for every 150 citizens, India needs to add 8 lakh more hotspots. “The situation of WiFi hotspots is not encouraging in India as we represent one sixth of the world population whereas our share in WiFi hotspots is less than 1/1,000,” Trai said.
Trai has said it believed that public WiFi hotspots were an alternative method to providing low-cost internet services to a large number of people, even in the rural areas, keeping in mind that the equipment needed come at a low-cost. According to calculations made by Trai, cost of internet provided through WiFi could cost Rs 0.02 per megabit at a time when consumers are already paying Rs 0.23 per megabit on 2G/3G/4G networks.
In the light of the Centre’s ambitious BharatNet not picking up the expected pace for rolling out optical fibre network to all the gram panchayats in the country, the operators believe a conducive right of way policy could help private players set up their own infrastructure to bring internet to the rural hinterlands of India.