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Digital India: What is the PM-WANI scheme that promises free WiFi access to all

The Prime Minister’s WiFi Access Network Interface or PM-WANI, launched by the Department of Telecommunication in December 2020, is one key scheme launched by the Indian government to bolster the penetration of public WiFi hotspots to establish a robust digital communication infrastructure throughout the nation, especially in rural areas.

When launching the scheme in 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Historic PM-WANI (Wi-Fi Access Network Interface) scheme…will revolutionize the tech world and significantly improve WiFi availability across the length and breadth of India. It will further ‘Ease of Doing Business’ and ‘Ease of Living’.”

The PM-WANI scheme is critical to establishing an effective DPI or Digital Public Infrastructure, one of the cornerstones of the Delhi G20 Declaration.

The government aims to boost employment opportunities for small and micro-entrepreneurs by improving access to public hotspots while providing affordable internet access to marginalized urban populations and rural households.

Under this initiative, local shops and establishments are encouraged to offer WiFi services for last-mile internet delivery without the need for licensing or registration fees.

Consider this – just like UPI revolutionized how personal banking and transactions are made in India, the PM-WANI scheme is supposed to completely change the internet penetration in India by making it accessible to certain underserved sections of society. By paying less than Rs 10 daily, anyone can access the internet for a complete day.

How to access PM-WANI WiFi
To access the public hotspots established under the PM-WANI scheme, users must download an app that displays available networks. Users can then select a connection from the list and make a payment to access the network. The network remains accessible until the user’s balance is depleted, as with regular 4G or 5G data from an ISP.

Components of the PM-WANI Ecosystem
The PM-WANI ecosystem consists of four key components: Public Data Office (PDO), Public Data Office Aggregator (PDOA), App Provider, and Central Registry.

Public Data Offices or PDO entities establish WiFi hotspots and furnish internet access to end users. Public Data Office Aggregators, or PDOAs, provide authorization and accounting services to PDOs.

App Providers facilitate the display of nearby available hotspots on users’ mobile devices. A Central Registry, which the Centre for Development of Telematics oversees, maintains essential information concerning App Providers, PDOs, and PDOAs.

Benefits of the PM-WANI Scheme
As of November 2022, the PM-WANI central registry reported the existence of 188 PDO aggregators, 109 app providers, and 11,50,394 public WiFi hotspots.

The PM-WANI WiFi architecture has the potential to significantly increase internet penetration, which, in turn, could contribute to GDP growth. It can expand internet access in rural areas, thus bridging the digital divide and creating employment opportunities in SMSEs

Furthermore, PM-WANI could provide affordable internet access to the vastly ignored segment of society, ultimately contributing to the advancement of Digital India.

Challenges to the PM-WANI scheme
Implementing the PM-WANI scheme in India has its share of challenges.

First, there are security concerns. The extensive network of public WiFi hotspots is susceptible to numerous security threats. With millions of people accessing the internet through a single device located in a specific location, ensuring the security and integrity of the network becomes a paramount concern.

Then, there is the case of data privacy. Transiting private and sensitive data across such a widespread network poses a substantial challenge. There is a risk of potential security breaches or data leaks, raising concerns about protecting users’ personal information. Under the PM-WANI rules, a Public Data Office Aggregator (PDOA) can retain the users’ data for up to one year. This policy could potentially conflict with the concept of the “Right to be Forgotten.”

Although the DPDP Act or Digital Personal Data Protection Act has some strong provisions, loopholes can still be found and exploited.

Then, we have the issue of network congestion. By their nature, public WiFi networks can experience significant slowdowns in connection speed when many users access them simultaneously. With thousands of people accessing a single hotspot simultaneously, maintaining an acceptable rate for all users can be a significant challenge.

Another noteworthy aspect is that the state is gradually withdrawing from providing internet services and is encouraging the private sector to step in. While this approach opens doors for private sector innovation, it may also increase internet prices. Consequently, WANI-based internet services are relatively costly for users.

Balancing data retention policies and user affordability will be essential as India continues to evolve its digital infrastructure and internet access framework.

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