Facebook and Google take contrasting routes to vast-scale Indian WiFi

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In the early days of public WiFi, the Indian market was slow to take off because of regulatory and market obstacles. However, the mobile operators, and other providers, are now accelerating WiFi build-outs to serve the ballooning demand for affordable mobile data in Indian towns and cities.

WiFi hotspots and homespots are central to new MNO Reliance Jio’s strategy to keep the cost of data delivery low, in order to undercut its rivals on price and support new, high bandwidth services. But many of the most aggressive moves are being backed by Google and Facebook, which have a strong interest in enabling India’s huge and youthful population to access their services easily and cheaply. They are working on WiFi, and on more futuristic networks such as Google’s Loon system, based on high altitude balloons.

This will be even more important to Facebook since its strategy of pushing a free subset of its services to users on a zero-rated basis, in alliance with MNOs, fell foul of Indian net neutrality rules.

It is taking a different approach to Google’s but both are aiming to extend WiFi at huge scale, to many millions of users.

Facebook has partnered with the biggest Indian MNO, Bharti Airtel to roll out 700 Express hotspots across Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. These will be followed by 20,000 more hotspots across the rest of India.

The company is partnering with up to 500 local retailers to sell the distributed WiFi service at affordable prices. A typical plan would be INR10 (12 pence) for 100MB, up to about £4 for 20GB. The social media giant currently has 184m Indian users of its main service and over 200m for WhatsApp.

Google’s key partner is rail operator RailTel, highlighting how even the biggest internet giants need infrastructure allies to make mass roll-out scalable and affordable. Balloons, satellite and drones may be used by both companies to reach the unserved remote communities, but in the cities, it makes sense to work with organizations that already have sites and customer reach.

The Google/RailTel deal will bring RailWire hotspots to hundreds of railway stations and the US firm is using virtualization to reduce costs further. The partners are targeting 400 stations by 2018, and they have delivered access in 116 so far.

At the recent Layer 123 NFV World Congress, Geng Lin, CTO of Google’s Enterprise Network and Infrastructure Services division, explained that the hotspot network was harnessing RailTel’s trackside fiber for backhaul, plus NFV and Google’s cloud-based virtual EPC (evolved packet core). Google has deployed a separate control plane and a cloud-based operations platform, and says the project is proof that carrier services can be delivered in a cloud-native fashion, based on microservices built from containers. “I think the cloud-native model is here for NFV, and I believe reimagining carrier network services as cloud-native is possible,” said Lin.

It is using advanced networks to achieve a high level of automation, with only two engineers required to run the whole system. Google has developed microservices including a significant amount of monitoring, to support the analytics. In place of traditional OSS, Google is using a cloud-based analytics platform, a key step towards a network that can respond to changing conditions automatically.

Lin said the service is now supporting 6m users a month and about 200 terabits of data per day. When it reaches all 400 stations, it expects to serve 30m users a month, which will make it one of the largest hotspot networks on earth.

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.

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