Internet access can enable Indians to leapfrog stages in development. A good indicator of its growing importance is the promise of free access made by politicians in Uttar Pradesh’s elections ending today.
Given this backdrop, telecom regulator Trai needs to be complimented for catalysing a public debate over the last eight months on ways to enhance broadband penetration through wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, networks.
India’s internet penetration is not only poor with less than 30% of the population having access, it ranks poorly in terms of affordability. These problems can be overcome if Trai creates a conducive environment for internet penetration.
Today, internet in India is accessed mostly through mobile phones. With the advent of Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones, Wi-Fi networks have emerged as the most important source of getting Indians connected to internet. Wi-Fi networks have the advantage of allowing many users to share the same internet connection.
Given these advantages, a Trai consultation paper has estimated that under some assumptions cost per MB in Wi-Fi networks could be less than 2 paise, as compared to around 23 paise for data usage in cellular networks. Affordability lies at the heart of any attempt to enhance internet access.
Trai’s attempt to invite public participation in suggesting ideas to enhance access has been underpinned by a broad description of public Wi-Fi networks.
The regulator is looking at not just traditional telecom and internet service providers, but also a new class of entrepreneurs who see an opportunity in providing this service.
It is the right approach as competition has always worked in favour of customers. It spurs innovation and eventually improves access.
But it is important that when Trai gives its recommendations on the subject, it avoid a prescriptive approach. Access is best guaranteed when market forces prevail and regulators focus on protecting consumer interests.
The Narendra Modi government has made Digital India one of its focus areas and has pushed a transition to a less-cash economy. But if they are to be more than mere slogans, it is important to remove obstacles in the way of widening and deepening internet access in India.
In this context, Trai’s recommendations will have salience and it is for the government to make necessary legal changes to actualise its slogans. When Wi-Fi technology offers advantages, regulatory obstacles which prevent its rapid spread should be eliminated.
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