Interview

i2e1 Expanding Access to Internet Across India Through PM WANI

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Natraj Akella, egov; egov magazine; eGovernence; elets; eletsOnline;

Proliferation of broadband across the country is needed to fulfill the Digital India Mission and a public WiFi network for delivery of broadband services can be leveraged to achieve this. Hence, the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), Government of India, rolled out the Prime Minister WiFi Access Network Interface (PM WANI) scheme to set up WANI architecture. From conceptualising to implementation of the WANI project, i2e1, a technology company, is playing an instrumental role. Throwing light on this, Natraj Akella, Head of Growth, i2e1, interacted in an exclusive interview with Adarsh Som of Elets News Network (ENN).

How i2e1 is contributing to accomplish the Government of India’s PM WANI initiative?

i2e1, for the past five years, have been working on providing internet connectivity and information to most of the people in a cost effective and affordable manner. i2e1 has also been working to establish the PM WANI infrastructure in the country. Therefore we are a startup that has been a part of the PM WANI initiative since the beginning. i2e1’s contribution towards PM WANI is from the conceptualisation, architectural design to infrastructure set up and implementation which is ongoing.

After the onset of the COVID pandemic, as the new normal has set in, the demand for WiFi services has increased tremendously. Also, it is a common observation that in India we have a significant number of people who do not have access to internet services. As of now, we have 5100 Public Data Offices (PDOs) in Delhi and across the country.. We have set the first government compliant PDO in the country and we have registered as an aggregator.

We are working with various industry bodies, partners and DOT / CDOT to develop the ecosystem for the successful rollout of PM WANI. We have also partnered with various municipal bodies in Delhi because of the affordability and sustainability that our technology brings to the table. Such a move helps in long-term empowering people as many of them cannot afford the internet services. Most of the public WiFi facilities have been currently established at malls, public places, markets, roads, airports, etc. and unfortunately, the lower-income community and poor people are left behind from reaping the benefits of such services. However, i2e1 has its patented technology and platform and we are serving such people for the last four to five years. Now we have enabled the entire architectural platform for the PM WANI compliant systems and rolled out these in the market. We have partnered with municipal bodies in Delhi to roll out 20 hotspots for each ward as a pilot project which can further be ramped up as we start getting results.

Our contribution has been there all across the wide spectrum of the government’s PM WANI initiative right from conceptualisation to implementation. Other than the government-run Public Sector Enterprises (PSEs), we have the largest network of PDOs. Also, we are working with Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) and PDO aggregators and helping them set up PDOs and execute their operations. The success of this program will be when the entire country will be connected so we have a role to play in ecosystem development as well.

Are there any restrictions or usage limits on data for the PM WANI users?

Firstly, PM WANI is an architecture that enables people to create a WiFi hotspot on their existing broadband. Therefore, through PM WANI people will not be restricted to the specific area for their network or broadband they can access the internet through the PM WANI architecture, therefore, it facilitates the interoperability between various network providers. It is like UPI payments, irrespective of the bank money can be transferred from one user to another.

Considering the entire regulation and framework on PM WANI, the plan is to decentralise or decouple the entire ecosystem. This means that a company that is enabling online payments can enable their app to become PM WANI compliant so they neither own a WiFi network nor they own a hotspot but can share internet access to its users. Therefore, people can come up with various business models out of the PM WANI framework. Hence, any app developer can leverage PM WANI to get people on his platform. The PM WANI framework allows the service providers to decide what they want to do and how they will charge the consumer. PM WANI also has an option to provide free internet. However, since there is an ecosystem and an app provider that is leveraging PM WANI and providing shared internet then there have to be some incentives for the app provider for this.

This is how PM WANI is empowering the people. In Delhi, we are conducting a pilot wherein we are selling unlimited internet sachet packs to the consumers. For Rs 5 one can get unlimited internet for a day, Rs 20 for a week and Rs 50 for an entire month of unlimited internet. The pilot has started getting traction in Delhi. If we look at the mobile internet that we get from our service providers, they offer 1 GB a day or 1.5 GB a day which is not enough considering the scenario and internet usage at present. Therefore, when these data packs exhaust the consumer needs additional data to access the internet and he can get that either from their fixed broadbands through recharging or initiatives like PM WANI. Further, there are different business models that can come up around the PM WANI ecosystem.

Previously there was DoT regulation that the internet can only be sold by those who have an ISP license. This was done to prevent any commoner from selling an internet coupon as fetching the license requires a lot of money, technology, and resources. This is one reason why the internet could not proliferate much in India. However, now the regulation has been amended and it enables people like us to expand the realm of the internet to even those who cannot afford it.

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How are you ensuring sustainability and affordability under the PM WANI initiative?

Earlier, internet service delivery was only limited to ISPs and Telcos and they have a different mindset. The cost of delivery was really high somewhere around Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh, also it required a lot of technical skills and time to roll out services. i2e1 came five years back and radically changed the delivery model. We created a cloud-based platform, took a regular router used at homes and developed a technology layer on the top of it. Also, we have reduced the cost of delivery of the internet over 10 x. In the past one year, we have developed a ‘do it yourself (DIY)’ model of internet service. Under this, one can buy a router from us. This comes with an annual subscription. Consumers can buy this online from platforms like Amazon and Flipkart. The user has to plug in the router and the rest is all automated. The router interacts with our cloud server and provides internet access as per the subscription. We have brought down the prices as low as Rs 3000 a year. Therefore, any small business owner can spend a minimal amount of Rs 3000, buy our router and become a PDO. This is how easy i2e1 has made the process to be an internet service provider.

Affordability is an important factor, especially for small business owners. The low prices not only make the product affordable for any shopkeeper or small business owner, it also helps in easy and faster recovery. Therefore, even if less number of internet coupons are sold the business owner would be able to recover the money he invested.

We have designed and developed this keeping in mind the consumers. Therefore, we adopted the consumer-centric approach right at the design stage. Further, if we look at offline businesses, they do not know much about the customer. So, we have created a basic CRM package on top and further, we have an analytics layer, therefore, we have added more valuable tools and services to comprehensively enhance the usability and value of the package for users.

What cybersecurity measures have been adopted to ensure the safety and security of consumers’ data?

The entire service that we provide is covered by the security guidelines of the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) for WIFI . DoT has laid out a set of guidelines for the backend and the frontend and abiding to these is the basic compliance needed. Security guidelines have been considered while designing and developing the PM WANI architecture itself. Moreover, the i2e1 WANI platform, apps and services are registered and certified by the Centre for Development of Telematics (CDoT).

How will the PM WANI scheme augment e-governance or m-governance in India?

Common Service Centres (CSCs) are the largest PDO aggregator in the country, especially in countryside areas. If we see through the blueprint of the WANI architecture, it is focussed on the low income urban and rural consumers who would probably be more interested in buying sachet packs of the internet services. It will be a different case for metro cities where the focus will be in a different sphere as per the consumer in such areas. The largest presence of online services or the internet in such areas is due to e-governance and microfinance companies.

With WANI infrastructure established across the country, there will be a new way for people to access the internet in rural areas other than the traditional ways. Also, with the PDO model under the i2e1’s implementation of the WANI, the opportunity to sell internet coupons to people and make money also opens up for the people. Therefore, people can make money by sharing internet access in neighbourhoods at affordable prices. This will play an important role in expanding the reach of the internet from house to house across the country. Moreover, with access to the internet, the people would be able to leverage e-services offered by the government and reap benefits from government schemes. This will enhance the penetration of e-governance in the country.

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