Smart Connectivity: Spotlight on the role of internet connectivity in smart cities

Spotlight on the role of internet connectivity in smart cities

Smart governance is a vital building block for the development of smart cities and all smart governance activities are based on the foundation of a robust public Wi-Fi network. In this era of Digital India, an efficient public Wi-Fi network can go a long way in transforming the face of the country. India is making good progress towards digitalisation and strong data connections can act as a catalyst to further speed this up.

Public Wi-Fi

Globally, India ranks first in terms of mobile data usage with about 76 PB (petabytes) of data being used every day. Other countries such as the US and China use 69 PB and 53 PB, respectively, of data per day. With increasing urbanisation, this usage is expected to increase further, necessitating the expansion of wireless connectivity as a key enabler for the development of smart cities.

The National Broadband Mission 2022 and the National Digital Communications Policy [NDCP], 2018, have been drafted to boost broadband connectivity in the country. In accordance with the policy, 50 megabits per second (Mbps) of universal broadband access, 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) of broadband to gram panchayats and data speeds of 100 mbps to universities will be provided. Further, 5 million Wi-Fi hotspots will be deployed by 2020.

The availability of public Wi-Fi services is the requirement of the day and has many direct and indirect benefits associated with it. It holds a crucial place in the last-mile delivery of broadband to users. Wi-Fi technology enables users to access affordable high speed broadband services anywhere and at anytime, even when they are on the move. Apart from these benefits, it also provides for offloading from telecom networks so as to ease congestion. In addition, it has low deployment costs for additional new services such as video solutions, internet of things (IoT) solutions and broadband access in public areas. It offers a seamless user experience, enhances citizen satisfaction by offering several citizen services, permits users to better manage their livelihood, business and employment and improves the image of a city or town. A single Wi-Fi network serves as a feasible option for supporting multiple applications as well as a private and secure network for municipal staff. Further, Wi-Fi offers easier scalability as compared to adding new long term evolution (LTE) towers. It also augments connectivity in areas such as buildings and airports where LTE penetration is inadequate.

Wi-Fi access points can offer low-cost and secure connectivity for IoT applications such as parking, environmental sensors, smart buildings, and water and waste management. It is a cost-effective solution for delivering broadband access to the low-income housing, railway and airport sectors. It makes available easy-to-deploy backhaul for internet protocol video applications that include surveillance, parking management and traffic control. In addition, Wi-Fi access points can also be deployed with or on smart poles, digital kiosks and signages to enable low-cost deployments over large areas.

The key benefits of installing public Wi-Fi are that it ensures a seamless user experience by providing enhanced connectivity, has low deployment costs, increases satisfaction as well as improves the image of towns and cities. Challenges in implementation include lack of supporting infrastructure, inappropriate business models, lack of single-window approvals or delays in obtaining right of way (RoW) clearances, regulatory challenges and cybersecurity issues.

Therefore, for faster deployment of public Wi-Fi in smart cities, authorities need to come up with the right revenue-sharing model. Greater support also needs to come from private players for rolling out Wi-Fi hotspots and smart towers.

Various initiatives have been taken and partnerships forged in order to promote the deployment of Wi-Fi with the aim of providing internet access to the unconnected. These include the setting up of over 25,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots in the country by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) (the highest by any operator in the country) and offering free high speed Wi-Fi connectivity to passengers at over 400 railway stations by the RailTel Corporation of India.

At present, there are two business models in smart cities for public Wi-Fi implementation. First is the city-funded model under which the smart city funds the complete installation and maintenance of the Wi-Fi network. The second is the public-private partnership (PPP) model wherein service providers deploy Wi-Fi networks and get back their investments by using advertising, premium access charges and business services.

All this is not without its limitations and challenges. There are certain general issues that arise while implementing public Wi-Fi projects including lack of supporting infrastructure (such as backhaul) and ensuring cybersecurity and privacy and a seamless experience to end users. Social education and awareness is an additional implementation challenge when it comes to hilly and far-flung areas.

Future outlook

India definitely has a long way to go in terms of adopting smart governance architecture. There is a need to focus on each and every component of smart governance for it to grow and evolve.

As far as public Wi-Fi is concerned, the issues faced need to be addressed quickly as Wi-Fi provision is a key foundational element on which the development of other segments of smart cities rests. Moreover, BSNL statistics indicate that the country is far behind other emerging market economies in terms of the number of commercial hotspots. According to BSNL, India currently has roughly 36,000 commercial hotspots as against China with over 6.1 million and Indonesia and Mexico with over 165,000 each. These numbers are indicative of the level of growth that is needed in terms of commercial hotspots.

Nevertheless, it is likely that India will be able to overcome all the obstacles in its way and make smart governance a reality.

With inputs from presentations by Shubha Bhambhani, Principal General Manager, BSNL; Gaurav Saxena, Manager, ABM Knowledgeware; and Sandeep Prabhakar, Head, Product Marketing, Moxa, at an India Infrastructure conference