WiFi unplugged

By Venkatachari Jagannath | 29 Nov 2003


Chennai: Microsense managing director S Kailasanathan, 52, still finds time to play chess — and win trophies, too. The IIT-Madras and IIM-Calcutta graduate, a former Tamil Nadu chess champion, recently won a veteran''s chess tournament in Chennai. But a major chunk of his time is utilised to strategise plans to net wireless fidelity (WiFi) projects in India.

What is WiFi? It is the term used for wireless connectivity to the Internet or to the local area network (LAN). It operates on a standard protocol of 802.11b and enables Internet access over a small area, called hotspot, through a transmitter.

The Chennai-based Microsense has WiFi-ed prime hotel properties belonging to major hospitality groups like the Taj and ITC. Recently, the company bagged orders from Le Royal Meridian and Chola Sheraton, both located in Chennai (See: WiFied star hotels).

"We plan to set up 600 hotspots in the country. Over a period of time hotspots will become ubiquitous," predicts Kailasanathan. A few kilometres away from where Kailasanathan operates, Dax Networks director Deepak Mirza, 50, too, is charting out WiFi plans, targeting tourist spots and airport lounges.

Thanks largely to the Rs 60-crore Dax Networks, the chilly Dal Lake in Kashmir has been turned into a hotspot — the first lake in the world to be so. This will facilitate laptop-carrying tourists to log on to the Internet while enjoying a boat-ride. "We are also planning to WiFi the Bangalore airport, partnering with BSNL [Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd]," says Mirza.

If the Net could be accessed from boathouses, then the Indian Railways is planning to offer the facility for passengers in running trains. Strangely, the domestic airlines are yet to think about this, though foreign airlines like the German Lufthansa are already offering Internet connectivity to passengers on board.

Not to be left behind, national Internet service providers (ISPs) like Sify and Dishnet DSL are also looking at the same segment. While Dishnet DSL will get into the WiFi segment shortly (the company plans to set up around 1,000 hotspots in six months'' time), Sify, on the other hand, has set up several hotspots in Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi.

The developments on the WiFi front, again, underscores that India is not lagging behind the West when it comes to telecom technologies. Several public places that see laptop-carrying executive footfalls — coffee pubs, airport lounges, hotel lobbies and rooms, and portions of corporate premises — are fast being transformed into hotspots.

In India there are around 125 such hotspots from where one can browse through the Net, free of wires. Nevertheless, the number pales into insignificance when compared to the 11,983 hotspots in the US, according to Intel''s website. According to one study, by 2005 there will be more than 1-lakh hotspots in the world.

Among the Indian cities, Bangalore boasts of having a major number of hotspots, courtesy Sify. The garden city has a large number of laptop-carrying professionals, used to working online round the clock, as well as a large number of international travellers who log on to this service.

"Soon places in other cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, which are likely to see use, will be added on as the demand grows," says Sify president (access media) Shrikant Joshi. Sify charges between Rs 60 and Rs 100 per hour of browsing under hotspots whereas cyber cafes offer the service for Rs 20.

Says Joshi: "The rates are comparable to internationally available WiFi hotspots and cover the cost of provisioning the service as well as bandwidth utilisation. Itinerant professionals are quite happy to pay about $2 an hour for the convenience of being able to do work productively during what might otherwise have been time unproductively spent."

Sify''s hotspots offer broadband connectivity in excess of 256 kbps. According to Joshi, network security will not be an issue as itinerant professionals have firewalls installed in their laptops by virtue of accessing their offices from different parts of the world. The common thread that is seen in the business plans of all the companies is that they are targeting hotels, airports and coffee pubs.

Adds Joshi: "This is still a very nascent service, at the very beginning of introduction and acceptance. The early adopters, as we saw, are primarily airports, hotels, airlines and the like because that is where they are most likely to be used."

For Kailasanthan and Mirza, the domestic residential market is not in their line of sight. The prohibitive cost (going up to Rs 50,000, based on the premises) hinders households going for wireless Internet. Also, with the penetration levels of PCs being very low in India, nothing much need be said about the laptop population as also those with WiFi cards.

Converting the corporates
Given this position the undeniable success factor is corporate support (other than the hotels) for this service / technology. As of now only few corporates have WiFi-ed their premises. For instance, Sify''s office at Tidel Park, the 10th floor of Sterling Towers in Chennai housing Dishnet DSL, the campuses of Infosys, Intel and the International Software Technology Park located in Bangalore, to name a few.

Does corporate India feel that WiFi is too hi-fi for it? In fact, many leading industrial groups do not even have a decent Website. Is India Inc really ready to go wireless? There are other questions that crop up before this.

Asks Dishnet DSL senior manager (business development) Senthil Venkatasubban: "Why should corporates switch over from their existing wired connection to wireless? There is no economic benefit for corporates to unwire their premises and go in for WiFi."

Concurs Kailasanathan: "The business case for WiFi is when there are advantages beyond mere removal of the Ethernet cables. Thus, applications in the hospitality industry have taken off before other industries. When Microsense started to set up hotspots in star hotels users with built-in WiFi laptops were few and far between. But that number has gone up considerably and is expected to grow further.

"For those with no WiFi card of their own, the hotel loans a card. Today, many computers, laptops and personal digital assistants (PDA) are shipped with the wireless card installed. But hospitals, retail outlets, factories and offices are likely to follow suit as WiFi laptops and infrastructure become ubiquitous."

Mirza disagrees: "WiFi is not hi-fi for the Indian corporates. In fact, they view wireless as an exciting and convenient way of connectivity — an extension of the existing Ethernet standards. Yet wireless is new for them and they need to know more about the devices, and the costs and applications."

To WiFi-enable any office space, the following equipment are required: A WiFi card (Rs 6,000 per card per computer; Rs 5,000 for laptops) that resides in the computer, an access point (Rs 14,000 each), and a modem (ranges between Rs 20,000 and Rs 40,000 depending on the capacity) to access the Internet. The 802.11b standard supports up to 11 mbps of bandwidth per access point.

"The cost of bandwidth will be not more than what is being currently provided by service providers," says Joshi. The access point is placed at a central location and provides wireless network connectivity to the area around it, Internet or to the wired Ethernet network of a company. It has a range of about a hundred metres.

The wireless is more dependable. "But the design should be right and must be backed by the right system integrator," says Mirza. The problem areas relate to that of the weather — heavier atmosphere weakens the signals.

According to Kailasanathan, unclear standards, interoperability, limited range, and hidden costs are not the dampening factors. But the dampeners are the security of the network and the licensing procedural aspects. The delays make corporates think twice before going in for a full-fledged wireless technology.

The security threats are also getting addressed. Says Mirza: "There are encryption and authentication standards in place as well as dynamic key mechanism, which will prevent data-hacking."

"Corporates will look at wireless only in the case of new buildings and the areas that are not wired currently [board and conference rooms, cafeteria]," says Rajesh Narayan, senior manager (marketing and business development), Dishnet DSL.

In the meantime, discussions are on about WiFi being a disruptive technology and threatening 3G telecom networks. "WiFi access points cost very little while 3G base stations sell between $90,000 and $45,000 each. Similarly, WiFi''s download speeds are also five times faster than 3Gs, while the former can hit 10 mbps 3G runs at about 384 kbps," says Mirza.

Concludes Kailasanathan: "There is a long way to go before the 3G-versus-WiFi issue is settled. By then both will metamorphose into a different form. There is a school of though that technologies based on WiFi will always be ahead of technologies based on 3G so far as speed is concerned."

WiFi-ed star hotels

Taj Mahal, Mumbai
Taj President, Mumbai
Grand Maratha Sheraton, Mumbai
Maurya Sheraton, Delhi
Welcome Group Marriott, Delhi
Taj Corormandel, Chennai
Taj Connemara, Chennai
Fisherman''s Cove, Chennai
Chola Sheraton, Chennai (about to go live)
Le Royal Meridien, Chennai (about to go live)
Sheraton Windsor Manor and Towers, Bangalore
ITC Grand Kakatiya Sheraton, Hyderabad
Sonar Bangla Sheraton, Kolkata
Taj Bengal, Kolkata
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur


Business History Videos

History of hovercraft Part 3...

Today I shall talk a bit more about the military plans for ...

By Kiron Kasbekar | Presenter: Kiron Kasbekar

History of hovercraft Part 2...

In this episode of our history of hovercraft, we shall exam...

By Kiron Kasbekar | Presenter: Kiron Kasbekar

History of Hovercraft Part 1...

If you’ve been a James Bond movie fan, you may recall seein...

By Kiron Kasbekar | Presenter: Kiron Kasbekar

History of Trams in India | ...

The video I am presenting to you is based on a script writt...

By Aniket Gupta | Presenter: Sheetal Gaikwad

view more