India: Unlocking public wi-fi hotspots

Innovators tackle restrictions set by laws that regulate public wi-fi access due to security concerns in India.

india wifi-do not use
India has one of the fastest-growing mobile phone industries, but with limited wi-fi, users are left to burn through data packages [Behdad Mahichi/Al Jazeera]

Mumbai, India – In Indian cities, the patrons of restaurants and coffee shops are often met with the same response when asking to use the wi-fi: “Picture ID please.”

India has long been at odds with itself over the deployment of public wi-fi, with its presence still scarce in cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi.

The lack of connectable hotspots isn’t a problem of resources, but rather a by-product of tightened security.

In 2008, a series of terrorist attacks rocked the city of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat state. Twenty-one bomb blasts shook the city in two phases – first targeting busy city markets, and secondly targeting government hospitals where those same victims were taken for treatment. Fifty-six people were killed, and more than 160 others wounded.

Just one day before, a series of nine bombs had exploded in the city of Bangalore, killing two more people and leaving more than 20 injured.

READ MORE: Indian company launches smartphone for less than $4

Investigations found that warning emails had been sent to a number of police officers minutes before the first attack. The emails claimed to have come from members of the Indian Mujahideen, an organisation that has been carrying out erratic terror attacks within India.

However, when Mumbai police tracked down the email IP address, it led them to the house of a confused American expat.

“Somebody stood outside his house, connected to his open wi-fi, went to Yahoo, created an email account, and then sent a large number of policemen emails that there were going to be bombings,” explained cyber security expert Vijay Mukhi.

At the time, Mukhi was asked to be a part of a Mumbai police task force that was conducting the investigation.

Several similar incidents followed, including another terror-related email sent from the open wi-fi at Mumbai’s Khalsa College, again claiming to be from the Indian Mujahideen.

“Because open wi-fi was being misused, police took action to clamp down on it,” Mukhi said.

In 2009, India’s Department of Telecommunications announced stricter regulations on wi-fi networks that made possessing a wireless connection in public places more of a difficult task.

The updated regulations (PDF) require all wi-fi owners to secure their networks with a password. It also requires them to keep a record of their users in one of two ways: by keeping a record of the customer’s data usage as well as their photo identification for a period of one year; or the owners could set up an authentication portal that automatically collects the data of the user’s activities.

Privacy and cost

These policies raise a concern regarding the privacy of the general public. “There needs to be this balance between the privacy of an individual and the security that the government wants. Every country has to take their call on it,” Mukhi said.

“India’s call is … more security.”

Mukhi thinks that this has led to a new level of mistrust between the wi-fi owners and their clients.

Tea Villa Cafe has seen a surge in loyal customers since introducing wi-fi to its three locations [Behdad Mahichi/Al Jazeera] 
Tea Villa Cafe has seen a surge in loyal customers since introducing wi-fi to its three locations [Behdad Mahichi/Al Jazeera] 

“Now customers don’t really trust wi-fi provided from someone else. How do I know they’re not stealing my passwords?” Mukhi asked.

Similarly, he said, cafes fear that if a customer provides fake identification, the police will hold the cafe owner liable in the case of an investigation.

“They need to readily identify the person. And that’s exactly what’s expensive, to set up something that can manage that,” said Mukhi.

Companies that help establish authentication portals can charge a hefty price, which has pushed many independent businesses to abandon the idea of providing wi-fi.

Those in need of a connection are more likely to resort to foreign chains such as Starbucks, which only opened its first location in India back in 2012, and has the financial capability to provide a connection with proper authentication.

An affordable cloud

The blooming start-up culture in India has allowed for entrepreneurs to attempt to clear these hurdles.

Vishal Chaudhari is the cofounder of Wingage, a start-up company incubated in Mumbai that provides wi-fi to cafes and restaurants through a cloud-based server.

“People want free wi-fi, but the problem in India is fear,” Chaudhari said.

Wingage helps businesses set up a User Management System (UMS) that gives owners the liberty of choosing which method of authentication they would like for their wi-fi. Once the customer enters their mobile phone number and receives a password, Wingage redirects the customer to a page that gives the option to either “Like” the business on Facebook or “Follow” it on Twitter – a bonus for the owner who signs up for the cloud authentication service.

The start-up also provides a platform from which the owner of the business can easily track how many users are logged on to their wi-fi. The owner also gets the option to limit the time or data usage of the customers on their wi-fi network.  

“Normally, to set up such a system in India costs around one lakh rupees ($1,500). We’ve been able to replace that with only 12,000 rupees ($180),” said Chaudhari.

By providing a Cloud-managed wi-fi service, Chaudhari was able to not only to make the system cheaper but more user-friendly for cafe owners. Though he said it took some effort to convince the small business owners to trust his product.

“When you’re a start-up, people don’t actually trust you. Not only in India, but everywhere,” he said.

“Because people fear the regulations, as an owner, they don’t want to only provide the wi-fi, clearly they want something in return. So in return we assure them that through the UMS nobody can abuse their wi-fi connection. What they also get in return is the commercial benefit when customers can follow or like them on social media.”

Since launching in February, Wingage has installed wi-fi at more than 75 locations in Mumbai, including at some bigger local chains such as Moshe’s, Di Bella Coffee, and Tea Villa Cafe.

Micky Panjwani, co-owner of Tea Villa Cafe, just recently expanded his chain. He provides the Wingage supported wi-fi at all three of his cafe locations.

A group of students get together at Tea Villa Cafe in Bandra to use the wi-fi connection [Behdad Mahichi/Al Jazeera] 
A group of students get together at Tea Villa Cafe in Bandra to use the wi-fi connection [Behdad Mahichi/Al Jazeera] 

“People come to cafes, and they need some time. It is a problem for tourists and locals when they come to cafes and there is no network available,” Panjwani said.

The Tea Villa Cafe is a fusion of India’s “tapri chai” – or roadside chai, and a sit-down lounge cafe experience. Panjwani said having wi-fi has attracted more customers and has helped emulate more of the sit-down feel to the cafe he is aiming for.

“Previously when we started with the wi-fi, we used to collect ID cards from customers and used to keep it in our record before giving them the password. It was a headache trying to maintain the data of the customer, and you never know when you’ll need it. In a day we get around 400 to 500 customers.”

Wingage is just one initiative attempting to bolster wi-fi availability in cities across India. The company plans to expand to New Delhi.

“The fear is something that was in every cafe,” Panjwani said. “But slowly and steadily, everyone is doing this.”

Source: Al Jazeera