Indian upstart Reliance Jio Infocomm is planning to introduce a 4G-enabled free WiFi service across Kolkata, according to local media reports. It could be the first of many.
WiFi is clearly an important part of Reliance Jio’s 4G strategy. Because there is a shortage of spectrum in India for use with 3G and 4G services, WiFi could play a critical role in supporting the adoption of high-speed mobile data services. As cellular networks become increasingly congested with data traffic, it could provide a kind of mobile data sluice. Unsurprisingly, most of India’s service providers are experimenting with WiFi to some extent.
With affordable connectivity a key feature of the recently launched Digital India initiative, Indian authorities are also looking to WiFi technology. The government has unveiled plans to create free public WiFi hotspots in India’s 25 most populous cities by June this year.
Reliance Jio has already made some moves on the WiFi front. Last year, it launched free WiFi hotspots at eight locations in the state of Gujarat as part of the regional government’s e-Nagar project, which aims to network five municipalities and develop a mobile app for e-governance. According to various media reports, the operator has also signed a deal with Swedish vendor Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) to set up 30,000 WiFi hotspots at various public places in the cities of Delhi and Mumbai.
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Reliance Jio’s investments could provide a major technology spur in a country that is currently thought to have only about 30,000 commercial WiFi hotspots. While commercial deployments are expected to grow at a moderate pace over the next three years, community-backed hotspots are expected to number more than 2 million by 2018, according to recent research from Maravedis Rethink Analytics, an analyst firm, and iPass Inc. (Nasdaq: IPAS), a WiFi connectivity player.
Even so, private sector players are stepping up their WiFi efforts. Aircel Ltd. took an early lead in 2011 and at one point claimed to have around 50,000 hotspots in the country, although it has since closed down operations in a few circles (service areas). Vodafone India started piloting WiFi hotspots at crowded places in metros last year. Tata Teleservices Ltd. is also planning to set up 4,000 WiFi hotspots by next year, while Idea Cellular Ltd. has soft-launched WiFi services in five cities. Meanwhile, companies such as Spectranet, Ozone and Sify have been experimenting with paid WiFi, albeit with limited success.
But Reliance Jio is moving at a much faster pace than incumbent operators when it comes to the installation of WiFi. Partly that is because the operator has no legacy voice business to slow it down. Reliance Jio’s 4G ambitions are also fueling its WiFi plans. Besides being the only pan-India owner of 2300MHz spectrum, which it picked up during an auction in 2010, it also owns 1800MHz spectrum in 14 circles. It plans to begin offering 4G services later this year, under some pressure from regulatory authorities. (The terms of the licenses it won in 2010 require it to launch services within five years of receiving spectrum.)
A current dearth of WiFi hotspots and the government’s prioritization of WiFi could provide the perfect opportunity for Reliance Jio to take a leading role in India’s rollout of WiFi technology.