The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena created a free Wi-Fi zone in Mumbai this Sunday to outdo the Shiv Sena before Assembly polls. But experts say connectivity is good, whatever its origin.
For urban India, 2014 has been the year of free Wi-Fi. In January, Bangalore became the first city to announce free, government-sponsored wireless fidelity services, called Namma Wi-Fi, in five public places. In February, Patna followed suit, with the Bihar government creating a 20-km stretch free Wi-Fi zone in its capital city.
In the same month, the Gujarat government launched an ‘eNagar’ project that included creating eight Wi-Fi zones in Ahmedabad, and the Karnataka government announced wireless internet connectivity in five hotspots in Mangalore. The New Delhi municipal council joined in last month, announcing Wi-Fi services in Khan Market, Connaught Place and Karol Bagh that will be free for the first 15 minutes of use.
In Mumbai, with Assembly polls in October, it is becoming a political issue. On Sunday, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena launched two one-kilometre free Wi-Fi zones in the suburb of Vile Parle, in a clear attempt to outwit the Shiv Sena, its rival party in the state.
The Shiv Sena, under Uddhav Thackeray, listed free Wi-Fi for Mumbai in its 2012 manifesto for the city’s civic election, but has still not been able to get clearances from the municipal corporation to begin the service in the Shivaji Park area.
The MNS, headed by Raj Thackeray, has now stolen the Sena’s thunder by being the first political party to provide free Wi-Fi on public roads in Mumbai, even though the party is not in power either at the state or city level. The MNS has tied up with Orbit, a local cable operator, to provide the service, and is banking on advertisements to support the project financially.
“Free Wi-Fi is available in so many hotels, malls and restaurants today, and we wanted to do something for the city’s youth,” said Abhishek Sapre, an MNS party worker who led the public Wi-Fi project. “Today’s luxury is tomorrow’s necessity, and free internet is something that people expect from leaders these days.”
For the MNS – as well as the other political parties in power that have jumped on the Wi-Fi bandwagon – free internet has become an attractive new sop with which to lure urban voters. With the new BJP government at the Centre, the idea of a ‘smart city’ that is digitally networked is gaining more popularity.
But should governments be treating internet access as a necessary service that they must provide for free alongside other infrastructure? In a country that lags behind in providing basic sanitation, electricity and education, how high up should internet connectivity be on the official priority list?
Most media experts believe there are social benefits to internet access that make it important for governments to provide it to the masses.
“It is well documented that access to the internet can lead to the development of an entrepreneurial spirit among people, who are then able to generate avenues of self-employment,” said Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the Urban Development Research Institute, a non-profit think tank based in Mumbai.
For the past year, the Institute has been working on a ‘digital inclusion project’, an advocacy initiative to push for internet access to be made a part of Mumbai’s development plans.
“Having internet access opens up a whole range of new opportunities for people to participate in the social, economic and political life of the country, and thus to improve their own lives,” said Anja Kovacs, project director at the Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project, a research and advocacy initiative, in an email interview. Because internet access can be expensive, by offering free services, the government can create a level playing field, says Kovacs.
The Bihar government’s department of information and technology, which launched the Patna Wi-Fi zone, claims that the service is meant to improve access to knowledge for the youth.
“The zone we selected includes a lot of colleges and coaching centres, so that students can use it to access study material,” said Raj Ranjan, a government official in charge of the project. People are using it to access forms online, he said.
While the Patna Wi-Fi zone has been functional for four months, the Delhi service is yet to actively launch. Services in Bangalore and Ahmedabad have also begun, but the latter is still in the pilot stage.
“Political parties may want to score brownie points over each other through free internet services, but if they are becoming more citizen-centric through such initiatives, it is a welcome move,” said Nilotpal Chakravarti, associate vice president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India.
The only glitch, in a country like India, is the fact that very few people have access to devices like smart phones, tablets or laptops, even if they may be getting cheaper. “If the government really wants to provide equal opportunities for all, it should also establish public internet access points where the public can gain access through personal computers or laptops and get online for free,” said Kovacs.