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Wi-Fi routers to make 4G service affordable

September 10, 2012 15:23 IST

For mobile customers who thought the high price of 4G devices would keep them away from high-speed internet, here is the game changer.

In an attempt to make 4G (which is four to 10 times faster than 3G) entry affordable for customers, some Indian 4G operators are going to offer pocket-sized Wi-Fi routers which would enable the existing EDGE or 3G-enabled smartphones, which are available at one-fourth the price of a 4G device, to use high-speed internet. The only requirement: These phones have to be Wi-Fi-enabled.

The country's leading players in the 4G space include Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Infotel, Maxis-controlled Aircel and Bharti Airtel, the country's leading telecom service provider.

While Airtel has already launched 4G services in some cities, Aircel is expected to launch the service in phases by the year-end. Reliance Infotel, the only pan-Indian 4G player, is also expected to make a beginning next year.

Vendors say the Wi-Fi routers are expected to be sold at around Rs 2,500. Vendors say fully charged, the router can work for the entire day.

As many as five people or an individual with multiple devices (for instance, a mobile phone and a tablet) can get connected at the back-end through the router to a 4G network.

In simple terms, it means that an Apple enthusiast can save money by just buying a Wi-Fi-enabled iPad rather than a 3G or 4G enabled model which is much more expensive.

Currently, the number of 4G devices is limited across the world and they are available at around Rs 20,000 and above -- virtually unaffordable to most customers.

But smartphone prices have dropped to as low as Rs 5,000 and as most of them are Wi-Fi-enabled, customers can continue to use them for making voice calls as well as surfing data on 4G.

"We already have pocket-sized routers and surely offer them to Indian operators," says an executive of China's Huawei Technologies, which manufactures the Wi-Fi routers:

According to data available with the Indian Cellular Association (ICA), there are over 50 to 60 million Wi-Fi-enabled phones in the country, which constitute over 10 per cent of the total phone ownership base.

With over three million smartphones being sold every month, this number will only grow. However, according to telecom operators, the number of phone owners using Wi-Fi as a service would not be more than five per cent -- it is this market that 4G operators would tap.

Attempts have been made to use the Wi-Fi router model in 3G, too. Tata Teleservices, for instance, offers a pocket sized device for Rs 5,000 which would create a hub and can be used for five devices.

However, operators and telecom technology providers say a similar model in 3G has been constrained by the limited amount of spectrum available -- GSM operators have only 5 MHz while CDMA players are asking for more spectrum.

In comparison, 4G players have over 20 MHz of  spectrum. Experts say they also have to create a robust backbone to support the strategy which would include building a large fibre optic backbone -- an area where Ambani's Reliance Industries Ltd is now investing in.

Surajeet Das Gupta in New Delhi
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