Over the next 18 months, Reliance Jio, the country’s newest telecom player has plans to set up 1.5 million Wi-fi hot spots across the country. It has already rolled out over 90,000 so far and is adding about 2,000 new hot spots a week.

The rollout is a part of its plan to cover the country with its data network, be it through the 4G LTE telecom network, Wi-Fi network or through the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network, all of which is being done simultaneously. Having put most of the telecom network through its web of towers in place, the company has now begun aggressively expanding its Wi-Fi network, though Jio’s current tariff plans already allow for additional data consumption over Wi-Fi.

Jio’s move to build a strong Wi-Fi network may sound counter-intuitive. After all, Jio sports the latest 4G LTE (Long term evolution) network that is already capable of high speed data movement and it is promoting the use of its Wi-Fi dongle even to watch movies without buffering on its telecom network. But, for Ambani, Wi-Fi will to serve to main purposes.

Being a network that is independent of its telecom network and built on the existing optic fibre, the Wi-fi network is expected to do the load balancing as its customers consume more and more data. Very similar to how customers download larger video files on their phones on Wi-fi rather than on an operators telecom network.

Secondly, the Wi-fi network is also expected to be a cost effective way of carrying data, as it won’t be transacting data through expensive telecom spectrum but through a proprietary network. Currently, companies providing broadband services over Wi-Fi don’t have to pay any recurring fees to the government.

India has over 250,000 gram panchayats and 600,000 villages and each of these locations require a mesh of Wi-Fi hotspots. That’s because Wi-fi hotspots typically are effective over a 150 metres radius and more than a few are required to cover dense landscapes. To start with, Jio is wiring up metros like Mumbai and Ahmedabad and in states like Telegana, it has created muchdenser network, thanks to a push from the local government.

The Wi-Fi hotspots sport the latest 11.ac configuration which allow for the fastest download and upload speeds giving an average throughput of 20 mbps. Over 60-80 terabytes of data flow over the Wi-fi networks every month and roughly there are half a million customer using the services. The hotspots also sport smart antenna and is “cognitive”, being able to configure availability of bandwidth according to demand.

Jio handles all the hardware aspects of the network while Pune-based Mojo Networks has been working on the software, security and cloud infrastructure design since the inception of the plan. For example, Mojo’s unique design will ensure that even if the cloud infrastructure goes down for some reason, the individual Wi-Fi nodes will continue to function on their own for a few days.

The big Wi-fi push comes at a time when Jio is also quickly trying to enable a huge base of Indian customers who so far had no access to Wi-fi. These customers, this far, could only afford low-tech feature handsets which had no inbuilt capability of accessing Wi-Fi. With the introduction of its new Rs 1500/- feature phone, Jio intends to change all that. And so are Jio’s competitors like Airtel and Vodafone who have announced launch of their cheap smart phones that is expected to bring in 500 million new data customers. Jio wants its Wi-Fi network to be in place when the explosion happens.

Separately, the government is also doing its bit to increase access to data to its citizens especially in the semi-urban and rural areas. Among its many motives, when it designed its nationwide optic fibre network Bharat Net, the government wanted to increase the digital footprint of its governance and reduce to the cost and time it took to reach its citizens.

Consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is said to be working with the government to prepare a blueprint for enabling data/internet access across the country. Among the many models being discussed is one to allow private companies complete the last mile access, with the government paying them for their services. The private companies will sell their services directly to consumers while with support entrepreneurial initiatives and help service providers to create viable internet infrastructure enabled by Wi Fi.

Jio insiders say that the project is now at an inflexion point as there is now ample proof that the backend is robust enough to handle large traffic with security glitches. Implementation is expected to accelerate in the coming months and there is a buzz that scope of the Wi-Fi project may be substantially enhanced.

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