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Beyond public WiFi: Thoughts about Mumbai’s network infrastructure

Mumbai went live with 510 WiFi hotspots earlier this week. For a commuter city with millions on the move day and night, this was good news.

mumbai Updated: Jan 11, 2017 15:03 IST
Smruti Koppikar
The WiFi network, free for the next three weeks, elicited mixed reactions in the first few days: good idea, lack of signage showing the hotspots, inability to connect at certain hotspots, erratic signal strength, slow speeds, connection without the one-time password level of security and so on.
The WiFi network, free for the next three weeks, elicited mixed reactions in the first few days: good idea, lack of signage showing the hotspots, inability to connect at certain hotspots, erratic signal strength, slow speeds, connection without the one-time password level of security and so on.(HT)

Mumbai went live with 510 WiFi hotspots earlier this week. For a commuter city with millions on the move day and night, this was good news. The WiFi network, free for the next three weeks, elicited mixed reactions in the first few days: good idea, lack of signage showing the hotspots, inability to connect at certain hotspots, erratic signal strength, slow speeds, connection without the one-time password level of security and so on.

These are early days and the teething problems should get sorted out. There is a user feedback facility, a help desk is being set up. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, whose mission this has been, is keen to go into the civic election due next month with a report card that shows action, not mere promises. It is a strategy to upstage the BJP’s ally-but-rival Shiv Sena whose leaders keep repeating “karoon dakhavla” (we did and showed) to voters.

The internecine politics apart, the government’s plan to augment the WiFi network to 1,200 hotspots by May this year must bring cheer to Mumbaiites. It plans to eventually set up similar networks in other cities of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Beginning February 1, Mumbai’s WiFi use will be charged after the first 30 minutes or 100MB whichever a user consumes earlier. Eventually, the government could consider options which cities like Bangkok provide – a two-tier plan with free slower speeds and charged faster speeds.

The WiFi and the closed circuit television camera (CCTV) networks are but entry points into a tech-enabled city, also called Smart City or Connected City. Fadnavis diligently follows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Smart Cities Mission; they want business districts, if not the whole city, to be tech-driven. Other cities have been down this highway. Fadnavis may want to read up on how New York, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Seoul and Bogota managed their passage into the tech era.

The first of many lessons from international experiences is an obvious one but needs to be recognised. The tech and digital infrastructure can enhance, not replace, the physical and civic infrastructures of a city. For instance, electronically enabling garbage bins to send out signals when full is pointless unless the city’s garbage collection system is adequate and fast enough to respond. Lighting across the city can be turned intelligent or smart, but there must be a reliable grid of street lights to begin with.

The digital network is the new urban infrastructure; the optic fibres which enable it are the new underground substructure alongside cables and pipes for water and sewage. As urban life turns more digital, the demand for network infrastructure will expand much like the demand for water and road length. Imagine not 1,200 hotspots but an uninterrupted WiFi service along the city’s arterial roads. The new infrastructure has to be flexible and scalable to accommodate future needs and demand. And as with conventional infrastructure, this too has to be accessible to all in the city.

The network will have to be reliable, robust and secure so that the entire range of services – from critical state-controlled ones like emergency response systems and power grids to less sensitive small use by individual citizens – are provided for. Unsecured networks can be misused by malcontents and terrorists.

A critical but less-discussed aspect of this is the legal and regulatory architecture which lays down limits of digital technologies in the public domain, data collection, and the use of data by the government and private companies. For example, the digitally smart Bandra Kurla Complex will help you park your car with ease but will the system store this data, for how long, and can it be used to interrogate you in an unrelated issue?

Internationally, cities are moving into the era of Internet of Things or Internet of Everything. Mumbai’s WiFi is only the beginning of this journey. It will be a challenging one.

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WiFi in Mumbai: Some happy, some complain about connectivity issues