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WiFi - A Key Enabler of Digital India

by Kiran Deshpande on May 1, 2017

Recently, I received a ‘Thank You’ letter from IEEE President & CEO for making a contribution to an IEEE fund that helps advance technology for humanity and realize full potential of IEEE. The IEEE President listed three areas of global concern – access to high speed Internet, adequate sanitation and electric power. Today Internet access is indeed as fundamental as having electric power and sanitation. This is reflected in policies across nations worldwide.

For instance, in India, Prime Minister Modi has outlined his vision for every Indian to have high speed access to Internet. Its akin to a Prime Minister laying out the vision for expressways for speedy and hassle free movement of vehicles across the country. A network of good roads and good communication infrastructure are critical to growth and prosperity. Hon. Indian Prime Minister is on the mark putting digitization along with ‘Swaccha Bharat’ as a top national priority.

In an emerging economy like India where wired network infrastructure is limited largely to urban areas, wireless Internet access is an attractive proposition. People love the convenience of wireless access even if the quality of connection is poor. You don't have to be glued to one place as it happens when using a landline phone or a computer connected to an Ethernet cable. Wireless access is ubiquitous as the entire space becomes the medium of communication. Governments around the world have recognized this as a national asset and have sold radio spectrum at a charge. While this creates revenue for governments, it can work against building affordable communication infrastructure. WiFi on the other hand operates in 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz radio spectrums that are unlicensed; one can operate in these frequency ranges without having to pay a license fee. This is very important as telecom operators, Internet service providers can build networking infrastructure using WiFi without having to pay for the spectrum. Coming to my road analogy, one needs a combination of toll roads and non toll roads. Both have their place in creating the infrastructure. In a country like India where sensitivity to pricing is high, WiFi will not only de-congest expensive licensed radio spectrum like 4G LTE but will reduce the cost significantly.

Smart cities and public hotspots are among the best known use cases of WiFi. However, many other innovative ways exist. For instance, top national colleges like IITs, NITs, IIITs and IIMs want WiFi across their campuses and spend considerable time and effort putting together vendors to look for this technology. There is a very good chance that requirements are largely the same for all of them and hence these need not be handled individually. A massively scalable WiFi Management Console that can manage WiFi at say top 100 national universities with a sharable architecture while giving flexibility to each university is feasible. The same approach can be used for smart cities, government departments and even Gram Panchayats. A unified approach for critical national digital infrastructure is efficient and possible with the current state of the art in WiFi technology.

Interestingly, this technology for managing very large scale WiFi was conceptualized and built in India. It is being deployed in the world’s largest public WiFi initiative that also happens to be in India. Having been intimately involved with the project cutting across multiple cities and a diverse set of end users, let me spell out broad requirements for such a massive WiFi enabled infrastructure.

Scalability: WiFi was designed for in-building wireless local area networks requiring few 100s or at best few 1000s devices for a building or a campus. A citywide or a countrywide WiFi network, on the other hand, requires hundreds of thousands of WiFi devices. WiFi architecture must therefore support seamless scalability for such high volume keeping ease of operation in mind. Traditional controller-based WiFi architecture is not suitable for such massive deployments. It is like using a Golf cart to go from one end of Delhi to another. It’s fraught with failure.

Reliability: When WiFi is deployed as part of National infrastructure, it becomes a public utility like power and water. Hence, it is necessary to provide reliability via redundancy at different levels, so that the service is available even in times of disaster or other public emergencies. On the other hand, in case of a national emergency such as a war, one must also be able to shut down all or parts of the infrastructure within minutes.

Security: In India, WiFi networks have been hacked multiple times to send terror mails. Securing public WiFi infrastructure from WiFi based attacks is therefore critical. It requires an additional security layer besides tools like user authentication and network traffic encryption. WiFi planners need to consider WiFi scanning and surveillance technologies that can detect miscreants and take remedial actions. It will also ensure compliance with the Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines and National Cyber Security Policy.

Interworking With 4G Wireless: LTE has emerged as the key technology for 4G cellular networks. Wireless service in the licensed spectrum is expensive and thus requires complementary help. If a user is on a 4G LTE cellular network and enters a WiFi area, the system should be able to move such a user to WiFi and vice versa seamlessly without the user involvement and without compromising the quality of service. From a technology stand point, it is possible to deploy LTE and WiFi in a single device or separate LTE and WiFi devices.

Large scale WiFi infrastructure need not look elsewhere for technology and the expertise. It’s available in India. Incidentally, the researcher who built its first version in IBM T J Watson Research Center now lives in Pune.

WiFi is poised to truly enable digital India. It will not be far fetched to say that the digitization of India will be synonymous with its WiFization.

Kiran Deshpande is the Co-Founder & President of Mojo Networks.  He serves as a Charter Member and President of the Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) Pune.  Learn more about Mojo's massively scalable Cloud WiFi solution or request a free evaluation. It’s a whole new way of WiFi.

Topics: WiFi, Open Standards, access points, Network planning, Enterprise, featured, IEEE