A few weeks ago, Google surprised tech-watchers by announcing a major initiative to put Wi-Fi in 400 Indian train stations within four months and will allow users to access free Internet at high speeds for the first 30 minutes of a trip, potentially reaching 10 million passengers per day. This is a big plan with big numbers. But India is a huge country with massive potential, and Google isn't the first to spot that public Wi-Fi is the only way to reach everyone.
What's fascinating about Google's plan is that it's the first time a Western tech giant has acknowledged that India is a clean technology slate; the perfect test bed for massive connectivity projects. I've been saying for the last few years that India will leapfrog the UK shortly on the digital and technical front precisely because we're held back by lots of archaic infrastructure and vested interests. India however has the opportunity to design everything from the ground up with full government buy-in.
But what will this Wi-Fi First India look like? In the future, wherever you are in India, you'll be able to connect to fast public Wi-Fi, hopping seamlessly between providers and networks, accessing all the digital services that you need quickly and efficiently - without ever needed to connect to mobile data. You'll be able to buy what you want, or search for services exactly at the time when you want them, regardless of where you are. You could be walking around the city, in a cafe, on the Metro or in a shopping centre. And this revolution has already begun.
For example, alongside Google, Indian firm Ozone Networks has already deployed 2,000 public hotspots with 6,500 total access points, including private hotspots in educational institutions, hospitals and hotels. India has a very high illiteracy rate so many people don't surf the Internet for anything other than to download entertainment. To drive adoption you need to turn hotspots into entertainment hubs - and not simply Internet access points. Ozone's strategy is working. More than 2.5 million people connect to Ozone hotspots every month and that number is growing fast. In November 2014, Ozone also signed a 'Wi-Fi as a service' strategic partnership agreement with Ericsson to provide carrier-grade Wi-Fi network across 30 cities in India.
Of course, there are lots of challenges to realising this type of 'Wi-Fi first' total connectivity in India. Monetisation is one of the biggest challenges. It's more difficult in India than in the West, where the site owner usually makes a contribution. Also, the device ecosystem is more complex in India: 35% of users own low-cost handsets with complex chipsets which add to the complexity of connecting to Wi-Fi. A seamless hand-off between 3G/4G and Wi-Fi will take time as networks have to be upgraded to 802.11n and 802.11ac. Handsets also need to support certain interfaces for this to happen, so interim solutions will need to be developed.
But India has one thing many western nations don't have: a government that understands and accepts the reality on the ground. They know that the challenges must be overcome because Wi-Fi is the only possible way that India is going to be able to connect the large number of people who don't have access to the Internet. For the foreseeable future fixed-line Internet will be far too expensive for the majority of population. It is also prohibitively expensive to literally dig up half the country to lay down the fibre people need for high-speed Internet.
I'm also convinced these challenges will be overcome because there's a young, tech-savvy and upwardly mobile group of people emerging in India. This is the new generation. Lots of them run their own businesses, often working from cafes. These ambitious young people are all over the country and are demanding that companies provide them with the same fast Internet that lots of people in the West take for granted.
So, what are the challenges to a Wi-Fi first strategy? The availability of Wi-Fi hotspots is not one of them. Sure, infrastructure is missing at the moment for companies to launch Wi-Fi in some of the most rural areas, but if you look at the statistics you'll see that across the country they're adding hundreds and thousands of hotspots every year. This rate of roll-out will only accelerate, and I honestly believe that by 2020 most of the country will be covered by Wi-Fi.
One of the crucial challenges India faces at the moment is the 'seamless' element of being a Wi-Fi first country. In the future it should be possible for people's smartphones to clearly and efficiently connect to the closest Wi-Fi connection. As you walk about the town, your phone should be able to jump from hotspot to hotspot to access the Internet - regardless of the provider - so you're constantly connected. At the moment that's just not possible. Users are sometimes only able to connect to the Wi-Fi hotspots that are powered by their mobile provider. Wi-Fi needs to be blind - or as they say in the industry 'agnostic' - to your current provider. I'm optimistic this will be the case in the future and, in fact, it's something we're concentrating on at New Call.
So, in spite of the uphill struggle, do I still think India will get there first? Absolutely! Unfortunately places in the western world, like the UK, have sunk decades of money into expensive fibre networks. This means that the majority of consumers in the West access their Internet through fixed-line connections, usually via a home connection.
In the UK the big telecoms companies won't want consumers to move to a public Wi-Fi model - even if it might be better for the user in the long run. The companies have put way too much money in fibre, and they have a vested interest in keeping their customers tied into the current system. India hasn't got the same archaic infrastructure. It can start fresh. It is an opportunity that the country needs to grab with both hands - and it will, you can bank on that!