Harsha Man Maharjan
Popularity of personal gadgets and portable devices like smart phones, camera and laptops have increased casual Internet use in Kathmandu. It is therefore common to find WiFi Internet in business venues such as restaurants, cafes, bookshops and shopping malls. These services are for the paying customers. On the other hand, local governments have invited Internet service providers (ISPs) to install WiFi networks in public places such as hospitals, colleges, temples and government offices. These services are for the public at large. These activities from the private and public sector raises many questions: (i) should cities provide free public WiFi to its citizens, (ii) who pays for free Wifi when the number of regular users are not limited to tens or hundreds but many thousands, (iii) who are its users, and (iv) is WiFi hotspot a distinct category like anytime-anywhere (3G) and fixed-Internet (home broadband) in meeting users’ information needs or just a supplement to other forms of access.
It is a fair estimate that Internet service receivers’ such as cafes and restaurants in Kathmandu and Pokhara popularly started offering free WiFi less than ten years ago. Lonely Planet website made an inquiry on WiFi availability in Nepal on May 29, 2011, to which others replied that this service was available freely in hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
The WiFi services are slow for two main reasons. First, there is no evidence that providing fast WiFi boosts business. Second, most people would not use WiFi if it was not free. In the early years, a single WiFi connection was shared among foreigners staying in the hotel who wanted to keep in touch with their friends and families while they were in Nepal. They were charged for the Internet by bundling in other services.
These initiatives might have encouraged Madhav Prasad Paudel, the then minister of Information and Communications to have a wild dream to make the whole Nepal a free WiFi zone. On January 2, 2014, the ministry formed a seven-member task force coordinated by Mahesh Adhikari, member of Nepal Telecommunication Authority, to conduct a feasibility study. During an interview published on January 4, 2014, the minister mentioned that the ministry was planning for free WiFi zone as it wanted to allow citizens to access the internet by using the infrastructure of optical fibre that lay along the highways and road networks
By February 2014, Internet/telecommunications service providers had shown interest in WiFi hotspots. On the occasion of 10th anniversary of Nepal Telecommunication Company in February 2014, it built wifi hotspots in 31 places, largely hospitals and colleges, in the Kathmandu valley and availed the service free for a month. To use the service, the user had to send a message to 1416 and would receive password for one hour of use at Rs 10. It had to be used within 24 hours of the message. By April 2014, NTC had created wifi hotspots in five regions in 16 districts. From 2016, this telecommunication organisation allowed users to access five hours of wifi service of 512 kbps at Rs. 30 within seven days. NTC marketed WiFi as a paid service and not an experiment under corporate social responsibility.
For private Internet Service Providers like the Worldlink Communications free WiFi hotspots are offered from the funds under corporate social responsibility. It is the most visible company with signed contracts with public and private organisations and individuals to offer WiFi services.
In April 2018, it signed an agreement with Kathmandu Metropolitan City to make WiFi zones at Pashupati, Baudha, Sankhapark, Balaju Baisdhara, Swoyambhu and Basantapur Hanumandhoka. According to the news, Worldlink would invest equipment and provide the internet with bandwidth of 10 Mbps. Users would be able to use WiFi for 30 minutes after which they would have to buy the service. The news further mentioned that the ISP would increase the bandwidth according to need and expand such service in hospitals, bus parks, and airports. The service was inaugurated in Pashupati in September 2018, and International terminal of Tribhuvan International Airport in October.
In March 2019, Worldlink Communications announced that within a year it would provide free WiFi hotspots in 10,000 places under their corporate social responsibility. At that time, they say, it had created 3,000 such hotspots. The hotspots allowed users to access the wifi for 30 to 90 mins within the 24 hours of receiving the password.
By January 2019, the discussion on the draft guidelines on operation of the WiFi hotspot, prepared by Nepal Telecommunication Authority, had already begun. The guideline that was finalised in April 2019 was intended to curb possible cybercrimes through such hotspots. Under this guideline, it is mandatory for service providers to send one-time password to users and collect data of their usage such as their names and mobile numbers, and log-in and log-out session data.
There is no data on WiFi Internet use coming out of the private or the public sector’s initiatives. We do not know how many hotspots there are and where they are. Neither do we know the long-term viability of the business models of WiFi hotspots. The starting point would be to identify the regular users of this form of Internet access. There are no compelling business models. NTC had experimented with paid WiFi services but it has not succeeded in generating much interest. Naturally, it is not a priority. Their website mentions that it has 376 hotspots all over Nepal by April 14, 2017; NT has not added a hotspot since then.
It is not unlikely that a large number of current WiFi hotspot users would not use it unless it was offered for free. Mobile telecommunications offer anytime and anywhere access to broadband Internet. Why would the mobile Internet users sacrifice mobility and switch to static WiFi hotspots as the primary form of Internet access? WiFi hotspots are also not attractive to heavy Internet use. There is no reason to believe it can attract cybercafes and home-broadband users. There is also no reason to believe WiFi hotspots will attract large number of regular and casual Internet users unless it is offered as a free service. Offering free wifi gives easy publicity to the ISPs offering the Internet connection. They can of course cash in the publicity to sell their lucrative services. Local governments can proclaim such initiatives as success stories of their “smart city” ambitions. But where is the data and evidence of use and effective use? The fact is, the four questions that were raised in the introduction section are still very open.
(Maharjan is affiliated to an academic NGO Martin Chautari and writes on issues related to media and technology.)