i2e1 – Enabling Affordable WiFi Connectivity in India

Natraj Akella

Spotlight on WiFi Connectivity | TelecomDrive.com

As part of PM WANI initiative, the government of India wants to set up 10 million hotspots in the country. It becomes extremely important to have affordable yet robust technology and business models that can support such scale. i2e1 is one such company that is committed to bringing down the cost of technology drastically and has created innovative business models around stretching the boundaries of WiFi connectivity in India.

Natraj Akella, Head of Growth, i2e1, speaks with Zia Askari from TelecomDrive.com about the company’ current focus and its future plans.

What are the key priorities for i2e1 today?

We believe that every person should have access to information so that they can transform their lives. The Internet is a key source of information and by setting up 1 million hotspots across the country, we want to enable 500 million people with easy access to high speed Internet for Free.

Under the PM WANI initiative, the Government wants to set up 10 million hotspots in the country. However, for this it is important to have affordable yet robust technology and business models that can support such scale. i2e1 is committed to bringing down the cost of technology drastically and has created innovative business models that help scale up PDO models really fast.

We are confident that our hotspots will be instrumental in helping millions of kids study online, millions of youth learn skills online and millions of people access information that is helpful to them.

What is i2e1’s focus on the ‘Customer centric’ model?

Consumer focus is the DNA of i2e1. It was founded to solve the problem of availability of information to the masses through affordable and easy to use WIFI. Unlike most of the other service providers, we challenged the existing thinking, delivery & business model around public WIFI in the country and in the process redesigned the entire device and tech stack grounds up.

This resulted in a reduction of costs by 10x and the service provisioning time to an hour in a DIY model from the normal TAT of 2- 4 weeks. Taking customer and retailer success to the next level we built customer engagement and analytics modules into the product to help offline businesses gain insights on their consumers and deliver more value to them.

How is the company playing a major role in fruition of PM WANI initiative?

Our role in the PM WANI initiative right from the drawing board, finalization of architecture, to pilots and its launch has been well covered in the news recently. We are the first to have launched our PM WANI ready tech stack, App and service delivery platform to general public.

We created the first PDO in the country and subsequently rolled out the model to 4000+ retailers. We partnered with the likes of HFCL and created a joint proposition for large deployments and turnkey PM WANI WIFI initiatives. A few others are in the pipeline.

How big is this opportunity in monetary terms…And what kind of investments are you likely to make for this initiative?

We always believed that public WIFI should be where the public is. Not necessarily limited to open public places like Airports and Malls. Through our innovative model, since inception, we championed the cause and sustainability of the small retailer and WIFI in low-income clusters. We believe here the unit of consumption of the internet is a household not an individual. Thus, the business case of shared internet over WIFI becomes obvious. Covid has only accentuated the need for affordable, unlimited connectivity at or around the home.

Our pilots have proven that through the WANI model and partnership with LCO’s, one can profitably sell an unlimited internet pack for a day at as little as INR 5 and for a month at INR 50. At scale the costs can be expected to go lower. One can extrapolate the opportunity, revenue potential and more importantly the impact it can create if we could replicate this model to other cities and Bharat.

As highlighted earlier, i2e1 has made the necessary platform and device investments. Along with our association with the various municipal corporations of Delhi, we are fast creating a network of 10 K PDO’s by June 2020. We expect this partnership model to be replicated across the length and breadth of India.

Please share your vision for creating over 1 million Wi-Fi hotspots across India; aim to provide free internet to 500 mn people in India?

As per recent TRAI performance indicator reports, the wireline teledensity is just 1.48% compared to 86.22% for wireless. Close to 70% of rural population does not still have access to internet. Closer at home , as per our estimates over 71% of the population of Delhi lives in unauthorized colonies with little or no connectivity.

The point here is that in spite of being the fastest growing telecom market and with the lowest data tariffs in the world we are still under penetrated as far as highspeed internet is concerned. There is a lot of headroom for growth. There is enough opportunity for wireless, 4G internet and wired broadband & WIFI to coexist and actually complement each other. The PM WANI scheme is a very timely and necessary step to fire our dreams and realize our goal of solving for information asymmetry.

What will be your go to market strategy? Will you be looking forward to partnering with other organizations in order to achieve this?

Our vision is to leverage our extreme consumer focus, expertise in tech, app, platform and monetization models and bridge this gap. We will do this by partnerships with Telco’s, ISP and other merchant networks like CSC’s etc. i2e1 will leverage its first mover advantage and catalyse the ecosystem around PM WANI.

Our recent engagement with the MCD of Delhi is a precursor to what is possible if the passion of start-up ecosystem is combined with the goals of the local councils under the PM WANI scheme. This should be a template for faster roll out of actually working smart city projects to people who actually need it on a private public partnership model. We will grow through our existing partnerships with device OEM’s like HFCL and like-minded internet majors trying to solve the problem of connectivity to the next billion users.

There are a lot of other initiatives by various agencies such as RailTel… where WiFi is the central focus. How does this initiate fit into the bigger picture?

PM WANI can easily be the UPI moment for proliferation of broadband and more importantly digital services in the country, especially to areas and consumer segments that are currently not serviced by conventional ISP’s for various reasons. For it to reach its true potential, the entire ecosystem should work together, as was the case with the UPI and the banking system.

Large networks like CSC, RailTel etc should partner with PDOA’s like i2e1 and make WIFI access truly seamless. Like wireless telecom networks one should enable roaming so that data packs can be used across networks making it a consumer delight.

What is your strategy on enabling affordability and sustainability in India?

i2e1 has pioneered in this space by creating a low cost plug and play device and tech stack keeping the small retailer in mind. This works on readily available broadband connections and does not require any knowledge of tech at the user end. We have enabled various monetization services like sale of coupons, surveys, display of deals / offers etc that can further reduce the cost of ownership to a small merchant. As a matter of fact many of our merchants actually make money from our platform.

We will further sharpen our focus on ease of use and monetization and partner with ecommerce , content delivery and other players.  We are also working on a ‘ Make in India’ device to further reduce the costs.