Why Microsoft's 'White-Fi' Is Not As Great A Solution For Rural India As It Sounds

14/07/2015 4:40 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - APRIL 02: Nokia executive vice president Stephen Elop takes a picture using the new Nokia Lumia 930 smartphone as he speaks during a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California. The 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference runs through April 4. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After Mark Zuckerberg, who wants internet.org to drive internet in rural India, US software major Microsoft Corporation says its newly-developed "White-Fi technology" can provide free WiFi connectivity to the roughly one-billion Indians who don't have any net access.

White-Fi is the wireless world's newest attempt to plumb every remaining avenue of available spectrum and use it for the internet. In this case, the spectrum that is available on television networks can be harnessed for internet usage. Current Wi-Fi technology allows you a range of about 100 metres, whereas the 200-300 MHz spectrum in the white space can reach up to 10 km. This spectrum currently belongs to Doordarshan TV channel and isn't used at all.

The base sets, as Microsoft's experiments with White-Fi technology suggest, can be run on solar power and thus overcome a key hindrance that currently impedes internet service providers, namely the high cost of installation equipment.

Everything looks good. So what's the catch?

It is that none of the existing phones, laptops or tablets are configured to tune into these frequency ranges. So the many millions of new users that Microsoft anticipates will probably need a new class of devices that are cheap as well as adapted to these new standards.

While it is still an open question whether the forthcoming Windows 10 will unshackle Microsoft from its previous hardware disasters, what a new range of associate devices might mean for the company, with all the associated infrastructure hangups, is still uncertain.

Secondly White-fi will never be as powerful and fast as the existing Wifi standards. Given that broadband speeds in India are anyways among the lowest in the world, it remains to be seen whether people will actually opt for the cheaper, but slower, equipment that White-fi requires. Finally, there's a thumb rule that for Wi-fi networks to be economical, they must have a fairly broad range of users. Solar-powered receivers might sound green and cool, but given that little progress has been made on solar-storage batteries, how would these run at night? Or in the monsoon?

There are, however, reasons for optimism. Primarily, the huge government buzz for 'Make in India,' and 'Digital India,' and the huge incentives for solar power generation in India. A few successful pilot projects could well make White-fi a realistic competitor to existing networks.

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