India is excited about 5G. The higher speeds, lower latency and enhanced performance are keenly awaited by one and all. But how prepared are we to fully realise and enjoy the true potential of 5G?

To begin with, India has emerged as one of the most data-hungry countries in the world. We are increasingly consuming bandwidth-heavy applications and services, presently at around 14 GB per user per month. Video downloads and streaming comprise almost 70 per cent of our data traffic today.

Rural users are consuming even more video content owing to their semi-literate background, and this is slated to grow further. As per the Ericsson Mobility Report 2021, 5G will further shoot data consumption to almost 40 GB per user per month by 2026. The consistently growing data demands of the people need to be catered to in a satisfactory manner, and the key to that is Quality of Experience (QoE).

While 4G has undoubtedly spurred the digital revolution in India — almost 97 per cent of our broadband connections being dependent on mobile (5G Mark) — our 4G speeds, barely at 14 mbps, are less than half of the global average (Ookla Speedtest Global Index). Going forward, we definitely don’t want our 5G speeds to be below the global levels.

Mobile broadband has several inherent radio engineering characteristics, due to which, nowhere in the world can it ever guarantee minimum speeds.

Add to this the growing explosion of heavy data use, and these networks, with limited spectrum resources, fall prey to heavy congestion, deteriorating service quality and eventually lead to poor experience for the consumers. But in all honesty, it is unfair to put this kind of load on the mobile networks.

What is the solution?

While it is generally agreed in both government and industry quarters that fiberisation of towers is an essential ingredient for the success of 5G, our present state of tower fiberisation is only about 34 per cent (DoT), compared to more than 70-80 per cent in other comparable economies.

With RoW and other on-ground implementation issues, it is not practical to expect our towers to be fiberised to that extent anytime soon. And even if we achieve, say, 80 per cent fiberisation, the growing data deluge means it would bring little improvement in the mobile broadband performance. Fiberisation alone would not be adequate for readiness to usher in 5G.

However, a lesser known fact is that public Wi-Fi can significantly augment the network capacities of mobile networks, for both existing and upcoming technologies like 5G. Globally, 70-80 per cent of mobile traffic is offloaded to Wi-Fi networks. By offloading the high data capacities needed for heavy video content to their networks, Wi-Fi hotspots free up precious and limited spectrum for mobile networks to offer better QoE. So, like other nations, we need public Wi-Fi to complement mobile broadband, support 5G and help achieve good user experience.

Why public Wi-Fi?

Since an estimated 80 per cent of high capacity data usage is done while indoors and not when mobile, public Wi-Fi will be apt and vital to deliver high-speed, affordable and quality internet services to the masses. Notably, average Wi-Fi speed in India is about 48 mbps (Ookla Speedtest) — more than three times that of mobile. But since most of our mobile users are not aware of the benefits of public Wi-Fi, they remain deprived of such superior experience. It’s like one who has not tasted sugar, does not know sweetness.

Further, Wi-Fi 6E, with its ability to support high data throughputs combined with ultra-low latency, can help adequately bridge coverage gaps in an affordable and reliable manner, while also complementing 5G in the rural/remote areas.

Increasing public Wi-Fi hotspots would also lead to more Wi-Fi usage, creating enormous data traffic for carriage by telcos, generating substantial revenues for them. Using public Wi-Fi to address network congestion and improve QoS would also lead to considerable savings for the TSPs. More public Wi-Fi hotspots would be a win-win for all.

Where do we stand?

Unfortunately, public Wi-Fi hotspots in India are at ‘ground-zero’ levels — less than 0.5 per cent of the global average of around 362 million (Statista). Therefore, while Wi-Fi is used for 50-70 per cent of the total usage time in most of the major economies, in India, it is less than 10 per cent (TRAI).

The historic PM WANI initiative offers a robust solution to this shortcoming as it allows the users to transition between Wi-Fi hotspots without the troubles of re-authentication, which is a major hindrance in uptake of public Wi-Fi. It will also lead to explosive growth in business and employment opportunities for small, local or village-level entrepreneurs. The NDCP target of 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022 is also likely to generate demand and scope for local manufacturing of the equipment in India, boosting Aatmanirbharta.

So, without adequate support from public Wi-Fi hotspots, our 4G speeds and even future 5G performance may not be able to meet global benchmarks. This would be a setback to our aspirations for global digital leadership, that we can ill-afford.

The writer is Hon. Fellow, IET (London), and President, Broadband India Forum. Views are personal