Pune: Indian City Gets Unwired Despite Policy Indecision

First city-wide wireless project in India is also the first test of WiMAX on a commercial basis in the country.

by / May 4, 2007
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While India's wireless community initiatives are still waiting for the government to announce its spectrum policy on WiMAX, which is holding up not only all city-wide wireless projects but also the 3G roll-outs in the country, Pune -- an industrial city in western India -- has gone ahead with an innovative solution to roll out India's first city-wide wireless network.

In association with global chipmaker Intel and India-based Wi-Fi service provider Micorsense, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) last week commenced the rollout of "Unwire Pune," a city-wide wireless project aimed at providing easy and seamless Internet connectivity through handheld devises. This project is significant for innovatively using both the Wi-Fi and WiMax technologies to unwire the city, the pursuit of which started about two years back but could not move forward due to lack of adequate spectrum for WiMAX.

Adoption of WiMax faces a peculiar problem in India. While nearly 1000 citywide wireless initiatives are already planned in the country, none has seen light of the day yet due to the government's delay in releasing sufficient wireless spectrum.

Globally the 2.5-2.7GHz band is used for WiMAX, but in India this band is locked for satellite-based mobile and broadcast applications such as disaster warning and radio networking. What is available for WiMAX in India is spectrum in the 12 MHz, 3.3 to 3.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz band range that have been allocated to seven Internet Service Providers for city-level deployments. But all say that this range of spectrum is just good enough for trials -- which some are already undertaking -- but not enough for full-fledged or commercial city-wide wireless roll-outs.

The players say that they have recommended that the government release higher spectrum for feasible WiMAX and 3G mobile phone roll-outs, but the government has yet to adopt this policy due in part to indecision on how much spectrum to release. The government is also not sure on how to price this. In addition, there is also a relative spectrum scarcity because the country's defense department, which is sitting on a wide band of unused spectrum, currently is unwilling to give up its "scarce resource" just yet even for a price.

"We decided to unwire the city two years back and even waited for the private telecom operators to set up a city-wide network," said Ambarish Galinde, the joint commissioner of the Pune Municipal Corporation and the person in charge of  Unwire Pune. "But when we realized that operators were unwilling to move forward in absence of a clear WiMAX policy, we decided to push the project from the municipal level."

A tender was called where private players including a state-owned telecom company evinced interest but wanted the Pune municipality to bear the costs. "But it is not the job of the municipality to undertake such projects so we floated another tender," says Galinde.

That's when Microsense, a local provider of WAN, Wi-Fi applications and integrated network infrastructure submitted its bid, complete with a commitment to fund the total project on its own. "We saw a feasible project and a good business model," says S. Kailasanathan, the managing director, Microsense. "Being the largest solutions provider of Wi-Fi hotspots in the country, we did not see the lack of adequate WiMAX spectrum a hindrance. We decided to use both Wi-Fi and WiMAX to unwire Pune since WiMax and Wi-Fi technologies compliment each other and are often used together in community-wide wireless solution."

According to Kailasanathan, Microsense would set up as many (exact number yet to be ascertained) Wi-Fi hotspots required to cover the whole city. As well, it would lease the unused WiMAX spectrum available from the local Internet Service Providers to provide the WiMAX connectivity.

"This is a good way of unwiring the city fast," says Galinde. "There aren't too many WiMAX users so the Wi-Fi connectivity option will provide universal accessibility, while those that desire high-speed connectivity with WiMAX can have it too."

"The main WiMAX demand comes from the enterprise users, so whatever little WiMAX spectrum we have at our disposal now should be enough for the time being," said Kailasanathan. "By the time the demand for WiMAX increases we hope the government will have finalized its policy."

The project is divided into two phases. While Microsense is deploying the network and offer broadband wireless services, Intel also has been engaged by the PMC as the technology and program management consultant.

The total cost of setting the network will be about $25 million. This is to be funded partly (almost 50%) by Microsense and partly by "interested parties and financial intuitions," which Kailasanathan refused to name. The PMC would offer the street infrastructure free for setting up the nodes and routers and in return, has been promised a free 2mbps connectivity at the municipality building as well as for a few municipality-run schools.

The business model of this project consists of a fee ($6 for 100 hours of use at 256 kbps) for Wi-Fi-based users. WiMAX users can expect a speed of 2 MB but for much higher fee, "the details of which are still being working out," says Kailasanathan.

"Unwire Pune" is divided into two phases. Implementation of the first phase started April 2, which will provide wireless connectivity to a 20-sqaure-kms area covering the central districts of the city. This phase "should be" completed in about 3 months, while the entire project covering an area of 250 square km will be rolled out in an evolutionary manner over the next 12 - 16 months.

'This project is significant for the country," said Galinde not just because it the first city-wide wireless project in India but also because of the fact that in three month from now India will experience its first test of WiMAX on a commercial basis."

According to the joint commissioner, the PMC plans to introduce a few administrative and socially oriented applications after the project rollout is complete. "But we will reveal those details in due time," said Galinde.

Indrajit Basu is international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.