The public data office is here

Our Bureau Mumbai | Updated on March 05, 2018 Published on March 05, 2018

Promises to do for data what PCOs did for voice calls decades ago

Gone are the days when consumers would walk miles to get to a Public Call Office (PCO) booth to make telephone calls. With mobile telephony covering every corner of the country, an affordable conversation is now only a button away, and the PCO box has all but disappeared.

Now, with huge demand for internet services, the yellow boxes may again become ubiquitous, albeit in a new avatar: as a Public Data Office (PDO).

Just over six months after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India launched a pilot scheme to set up PDOs, 437 such access points have been set up by 15 players, including Facebook and Bluetown, a Danish company managed by some former Nokia executives.

According to TRAI data, these PDOs have been seeing good usage, with over 2,500 GB of data being used daily across all the 437 access points.

So, how is this model different from the cyber cafe, which took off in the early 2000s?

A different model

That model entailed users coming to a fixed location to access the internet on a computer desktop. Connectivity was based on a fixed-line network, and was charged on an hourly basis.

On the other hand, the PDOs offer connectivity using Wi-Fi routers, which allow users to access the net on their mobile phones or other devices. The user can be anywhere within the coverage of the router and need not be physically located at the PDO. Users have to buy “sachet-sized” data plans, priced between ₹2 and ₹20, that can be used any time. The project has attracted as many as 20 hardware and software providers, who help set up the PDOs.

There are also application providers who have signed up to provide user-specific applications, including e-governance and Aadhaar-linked services.

“The Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (WANI) represents an exciting opportunity to do for data what PCOs did for long-distance calling. It will bring a new generation of users on to the internet in an assisted manner. It will also boost the consumption of data by the price-sensitive Indian customer, who rations cellular data usage,” said a TRAI official.

In addition to multinationals such as Facebook, a number of small Indian entities have set up PDOs. These include Bengaluru-based start-up WifiDabba, which offers 100 MB data for ₹2 and 1GB for ₹20. Public sector company C-DoT is also part of the pilot.

“Traditional telecom operators have done a good job in ensuring basic voice telephone connectivity across the country. But we need more projects and participants in creating public Wi-Fi hotspots to ramp up broadband reach quickly,” said TV Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum, an industry advocacy platform.

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Published on March 05, 2018
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