Bangalore, April 27 2015: The aggro about net neutrality, on all those 9 pm TV shout-a-thons, has obscured the real challenge for Indians today: How to get primary access to the Internet . If you can't afford basic connectivity, what does it matter which websites we can view or not view? Which is why the government's plans to blanket the country with free Internet hotspots is -- or should be -- the big story today.
The only viable technology to offer Net access over large public areas, is WiFi -- and it has one big advantage: it can be rolled out using the unlicensed and 'free' areas of the wireless spectrum.
Public WiFi is not new : It was first rolled out 7 years ago by the Pune Municipal Corporation, with Microsense who created a free 512 KBPS hotspot at the Sambhaji Park. The experiment fizzled -- neither governments nor corporates showed much interest in making such spots viable -- till now.
The government has pledged connect India's 250,000 village clusters, using WiFi for the 'last mile'.
Bengaluru laid claim last year to be "India's first free WiFi Zone" in the central business district and a few bus stations.
Kolkata followed suit and 'illumined' Park Street, with four more areas due to become hotspots this year. Chennai Central became the first railway station to get Wi-Fi connectivity in September last, followed by Bengaluru.
The Rapid Metro in Gurgaon has Wifi in all stations, as had the Mumbai Metro, albeit for a brief spell.
Ahmedabad, Agra, Mumbai CST, Howrah and Secunderabad stations are next in queue: the railways has entrusted the task to Sistema Shyam and hopes that 400 stations will ultimately have hotspots .
'MyDelhi-WiFi Delhi' was an election mantra of the AAP. OnApril2, the Delhi government conducted a day long dialogue with all stateholders, including BSNL, private providers and experts to set up 600 hotspots in the national capital.
The Gachibowli-HitecCity IT corridor in Hyderabad, boasts a few free Internet hotspots at Kondapur, Hightech City, Madhapur where users have free data up to 750 MB.
BSNL is to set up WiFi spots in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Chennai's Marina beach , Mahabalipuram, Sims Park in Coonoor and Thanjavur's Big Temple are expected to go WiFi by May. In the Kochi area BSNL is partnering QuadGen Wireless Solutions to start WiFi services at 10 locations including Fort Kochi, Mattancherry, Marine Drive, High Court, Subhash Park, Vyttila Mobility Hub, Jos Junction, Edappally Junction & Kaloor.
Varanasi got free WiFi this year-- in keeping with an electoral promise made by its parliamentary representative -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However the rollout is having to contend with the holy city's monkeys who keep eating away the riverside fibre optic cables.
Taj Mahal and Khajuraho are among 25 tourist spots slated to go WiFi by June this year.
India's WiFi drive has the benefit of being led by some of the best brains in the business. QuadGen is led by C.S. Rao, former head of the WiMax Forum.
The largest private player in WiFi is Ozone Networks, founded and led by UK-born Sanjeev Bobby Sarin, a veteran from British Telecom. The company has created some 7000 WiFi zones in India; about 1500 are public hotspots, the rest are for enterprises like Macdonalds, Haldiram and Subway who see value in providing free WiFi in their outlets.
Public Internet in India is still a work in progress. Free usually means 15 - 30 minutes max, after which there is a charge. The quality is patchy and connectivity both slow and intermittent. But it's a start.
For lakhs of lay Indians, the mobile phone is their chosen tool of empowerment --- and while they can afford the asking price of a call or an SMS, free public Internet hotspots may yet emerge as their chosen route to access the Internet. Anand Parthasarathy
Free Public Wifi Access Zones & Hotspots In India... 2 resources