Bengaluru-based Wifi Dabba plans to cover the city with lasers that transmit data signals to provide fast, affordable broadband access without the hassle and time of digging and laying fiber optic cables. Gadgets 360 had spoken to Wifi Dabba back in 2017 when the company worked with kirana stores and paan stores – small retailers and kiosks – to put dabbas (boxes) in these places that contained routers and sachet prices of Rs to offer. 20 for 1 GB of data via WiFi.
The name hasn’t changed, but the company is targeting a laser-based, line-of-sight internet distribution system that is based on Facebook and Google and provided it as Project Loon. In this way, the introduction should take place at significantly lower costs than the competition and Internet access should also be offered at lower prices. Wifi Dabba plans to offer unlimited 1 Gbit / s access to Rs. 799 per month, which is significantly less than most existing plans.
However, unlike Google, Wifi Dabba does not plan to use balloons. Instead, line-of-sight lasers are used, which are placed on tall structures in a grid of around 100 base stations, dividing the entire city into a grid. Shubhendu Sharma, Co-Founder and COO of Wifi Dabba spoke to Gadgets 360 to explain how this will work.
“The model for 2018 was kirana stores and paan stores, in which we have set up a thousand locations in Bangalore alone. The biggest problem, however, was the maintenance of these locations. Fiber cut problems were very common, and 13 percent of the network was down most of the time, ”Sharma said. “While there is certainly a problem on the last mile, the bigger problem has been the infrastructure on the middle mile.”
This is the infrastructure over which the internet connection is delivered to you. Initially, the Internet will reach India via overseas cables, for example in Mumbai. Companies that offer National Long Distance (NLD) services such as Powergrid or RailTel then transport lines from there to the cities. It is through these networks that ISPs connect and bring the Internet to your neighborhood and from there the last mile to your home.
You need a lot of permissions
“The [middle-mile] infra is broken, the fiber either does not exist or is not serviceable. These are owned by a mix of ISPs and other third parties and can cause a lot of coordination problems, ”Sharma said.
“We started looking for fiber optic solutions, but we couldn’t get right of way or coordinate with local businesses,” he added. “Each place would cost around Rs. 30 lakh, and all of Bengaluru would require an investment of around $ 50 million (around 368 billion rupees). “
This problem is one of the main reasons why the rollout of home broadband has been so much slower than that of cellular networks. In 2017, ACT CEO Bala Malladi spoke to Gadgets 360 in Hyderabad, where he said the cost of using it in a city is Rs. 200 crore. In contrast, Wifi Dabba plans a city-wide rollout at a tenth of the cost of fiber.
As one of the largest Internet service providers in India, ACT still had to take off slowly – neighborhood by neighborhood, Malladi said, not city by city. And permissions are one of the big challenges. “You need the bandwidth and you need to train the staff to properly serve the customers,” Malladi said at the time, “and you need many, many permissions.”
Laser in sight
The solution for Wifi Dabba lay in lasers. “We then looked at 5 GHz frequencies in order to distribute access with a capacity of several gigabytes. Then we looked at Google’s Project Loon with Free Space Optics, which can do 20 Gbps transmissions over the line of sight, ”Sharma said.
“Free space” here means air – the laser light signal goes through empty air and not through optical fibers. If you’ve ever looked at fiber optic, you know it can bend – you can run a fiber optic cable and get it where it’s needed. With such a solution, you need a line of sight between the various “stations” where the signal is distributed. Studies show that this is a viable solution for a few miles but is affected by rain, fog, or dust.
It also requires a lot of technological development. “We developed custom routers, Dabba OS, which is a super smart router operating system that can run multiple SSIDs, self-diagnostics, and more,” Sharma said. The first, however, is to figure out where the lasers need to go. And the answer to that was drones.
“There are enough drone companies now that can make lat long maps, and they have provided us with a full elevation map to help identify laser locations. We only need 100 devices to cover the entire city. This is something we’re developing now as we raise money to build it – two lasers have been in use for a year and are now ready to scale it up with 100 partners to invest in this via a franchise route, ”explained Sharma.
“We’ve been living with the lasers for 11 months now and the weather isn’t causing any problems, although thick fog (between 3 and 5 a.m. on some days) will bring the speed from 20 Gbps to 4-5 Gbps,” said Sharma. In cities like Delhi, where smog is more of a problem and lingers longer, this might be more of a problem, although Sharma said it is not.
These lasers are installed on tall buildings – no balloons are required – and traverse the city. These base stations can then serve several other buildings in the area using more traditional methods. Fiber-to-the-home, although Sharma said the team is also considering deploying 5G routers to wirelessly deliver even the last mile. However, he noted that this process will take a year or two before it actually works out in a meaningful way. Reliance has announced that it will start the 5G rollout in the second half of 2021, but it will likely take some time for it to become widespread.
Crowdfunding an ISP
With the plan to assign the base stations to 100 partners, Wifi Dabba wants to scale quickly without having to invest large amounts itself. “A partner will invest Rs. 15 lakh to acquire the rights with a 30 (them) – 70 (us) revenue share after the first year. We have now sold 40 franchises with 60 remaining. Deployment will begin early next year and will take about a year for the network to be fully operational, ”said Sharma.
“This has been deployed for 40 to 45,000 customers, and total downtime has been less than four hours over the past 11 months,” he added. “A large segment is colivating buildings like Oyo and Helloworld. WiFi Dabba is the official partner, which also includes the provision of a Wi-Fi network, and it gives us space to set up the infrastructure on the roofs. “
These agreements serve around 150 buildings across Bengaluru on a prepaid model where customers only have to pay Rs. 1 for 1 GB of data. And this has no daily limit, so a customer can consume that in a single day or use it sparingly for the whole month, Sharma said.
“We took a tech-intensive approach where our Ops team used Swiggy-like apps to solve customer problems remotely. This means that our costs are very low compared to the industry standard, ”he added. “The second thing here is that we’re not running on a costly infrastructure like underground fiber optics. For us, a city means an investment of around $ 5 million (around 36.8 billion rupees) compared to $ 50 million using a traditional fiber approach. “
However, challenges remain. Wifi Dabba wants to set up an infrastructure for providing measurement networks in homes so that end users do not have to provide hardware themselves, but it has to work hard to make agreements on site. A pilot program is currently being carried out with MyGate, the security and furnishings provider for apartments.
“MyGate also wants connectivity for the devices they provide, so they reached out to us to provide connectivity to partner with. Once we roll that out in Bangalore, we would hope things continue to expand,” said Sharma.
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