IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

Connecting more people: on PM WANI

12th December, 2020 GOVERNANCE

Context: Public wi-fi is a low-cost option to reach unserved citizens and grow the economy

  • The Central government’s move to enable public wi-fi data service through small retail data offices can get many more people connected, just as long-distance telephony was expanded through STD public call offices over three decades ago.
  • Bringing broadband Internet to remote locations at minimum investment, and giving subscribers the option of making small, need-based payments to use it has remained a challenge thus far.
  • Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM WANI) scheme approved by the Union Cabinet aims to bridge that divide using wireless technologies.
  • Potentially, Internet access will connect a new wave of users not just to commercial and entertainment options, but also to education, telehealth and agriculture extension, and bring greater accountability to government by boosting transparency and interactivity.
  • The government is hoping that by cutting through layers of bureaucracy and eliminating licences and fees, it can make it easy even for a tea shop owner to register online as a service provider, opening up new income avenues.
  • Three years ago, when TRAI outlined the plan and initiated the first pilot of a public wi-fi system on the WANI architecture, it noted that a 10% rise in net penetration led to a 1.4% increase in GDP.
  • Public wi-fi, however, suffered neglect because it was seen as a competitor to data services sold by mobile telecom firms, rather than as the complementary technology it is.
  • A rapid scale-up of Internet in rural India will be transformative, given the low level of penetration — 27.57 subscribers per 100 population in 2019 - and wi-fi linked to broadband fibre service is the fastest route to achieving that.
  • Upcoming mobile technologies such as 5G may provide good quality data, but they involve high investment in new spectrum, connectivity equipment and regular subscriber fees.
  • The WANI system offers an elegant way forward to connect low revenue consumers.
  • It opens up opportunities for community organisations, libraries, educational institutions, panchayats and small entrepreneurs to tap into a whole new ecosystem, purchasing bandwidth from a public data office aggregator to serve local consumers.
  • What the citizen expects is robust service, protection of data integrity, transparency on commercial use of data, and security against cyberattacks.
  • The government must also ensure true unbundling of hardware, software, apps and payment gateways in the WANI system, as advocated by TRAI, to prevent monopolies.
  • Existing public wi-fi options run on a limited scale by some entities compel consumers to pay through a single gateway app, underscoring the need for reform.
  • Executed properly, the public data offices (PDOs) of PM WANI can do what the PCOs did for phone calls, going well beyond ‘ease of doing business’ to genuinely empower citizens.