In a bid to improve wireless connectivity, the Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved setting up of public WiFi networks across the country. The WiFi will be provided through public data offices (PDOs) for which there will be no licence, registration or any other fees, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, adding that the public WiFi was being rolled out as part of the Prime Minister WiFi Access Network Interface (PM- WANI).

The PDO, to be set up along the lines of public calling office, can be a mom-and-pop store in the area or the common services centre present in various small towns, gram panchayats, and villages in the country. The PDOs can either provide the internet on other own or lease it from other telecom and internet service providers, he said.

In addition to the PDOs, there will also be PDO aggregators, which will look after the authorisation and accounting of PDOs. A third layer will of app providers, available for download on the Play Store as well as the Apple Store, will enable users to register for using the public WiFi at a particular place. Users, however, will not be required to download different apps, as a single app will provide seamless connectivity to any PDO across the country, Prasad said.

Though there will be no licence for PDOs, a simple registration system will be put in place for PDO aggregators as well as app providers, which will be approved within seven days of the application being submitted. If the said application is not approved within seven days, it shall be deemed approved by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Prasad said. The Centre will maintain a central registry, which will contain all the details of all the PDO, the PDO aggregators, and app providers for Development of Telematic (C-DOT).

The idea of a PDO was first floated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) in 2017. Six months later, it set up the initial pilot project for PDO, in which companies such as Facebook, and the government’s C-DOT had participated. Like a PCO, the PDO allows users to connect to a public WiFi system for a limited session depending on the internet pack chosen by the user. These internet packages can either be charged on per minute or hour basis by the PDOs. In 2018, when Trai had floated the test model, it mooted that the users should be able to buy “sachet-sized” internet plans, that varied between Rs 2 and Rs 20 and can be used anytime.

In its report after conducting the tests, Trai had said that to plug the gap of high speed and reliable broadband connectivity in rural and remote areas, public WiFi was one of the best ways.

“… in most major economies, for 50 to 70 per cent of their total usage time, mobile users use WiFi technology to communicate. In India, this figure is less than 10 per cent. Therefore, there is a dire need to exploit WiFi technology also for delivering broadband services at affordable prices,” Trai had said, adding that to plug gaps of broadband connectivity, there should at least be a 100 million public WiFi hotspots in the country by 2023.

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