How big a role Wi-Fi might eventually play in developing regions remains a big question. In many ways, since Wi-Fi hinges on backhaul and transport facilities, Wi-Fi faces challenges as a primary consumer Internet access platform.
On the other hand, Wi-Fi already is a viable access strategy in many areas where nothing but a satellite or fixed wireless backhaul and transport network is sustainable.
Use of Wi-Fi as an Internet access platform in India is growing, even if that might seem a difficult proposition in country with fixed network facilities. BSNL is among those who now are deploying public hotspot networks.
The government of India has said it will create facilities offering public Wi-Fi in 2,500 cities and towns across the country over three years, with the network built and operated by state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL).
The city of Delhi also separately is working on a municipal Wi-Fi plan of its own, that might use a freemium business model.
For its part, Bharti Airtel Limited (Airtel) announced that Uber riders across India will be able to pay for their trips using Airtel Money, the firm’s mobile wallet service. As part of that plan, Uber vehicles will be outfitted with Airtel 4G connections, offering free Wi-Fi inside Uber vehicles.
The government of Bihar, meanwhile, plans to offer free Wi-Fi at all colleges within the state.
Facebook’s Internet Basics non-profit also now is assisting local operators in creating networks of hotspot access.
Internet Basics has, for example, partnered with an Indian rural Internet access provider, AirJaldi, to manage the operation of the Express Wi-Fi service.
As currently configured, Express Wi-Fi costs 10 rupees, or about 15 cents, for one day’s access to 100 megabytes of data. For $3, users can buy use of 20 gigabytes of data, which can be used over the course of a month.
Those prices are roughly 33 percent of the cost of mobile prepaid data plans from Airtel, by wa of comparison.
As always, sustainability of the business model is a key important near-term objective. In terms of distribution, Free Basics has concluded that prospects are best if only a single distributor has rights to sell the service in any given village. The initiative aims to serve some 40 villages.
“If you want to scale up, you have to present a sustainable economic model,” said Michael Ginguld, AirJaldi’s director of strategy and operations.