The Punjab government has launched free Wi-Fi hotspots across the province. Behind this ambitious venture is Wifigen, a startup which made the project possible. The company provides free Wi-Fi to customers in exchange for their information.
Founded by a 26-year old aspiring entrepreneur in 2014, the startup ended up being valued at more than a million dollars by 2016. It launched its services in New Zealand in 2015 and signed an agreement with Tahiti Island, which wanted their help in providing tourists with free Wi-Fi for a better travel experience.
Now the startup has collaborated with the government of the Punjab and set up 200 free Wi-Fi hotspots in six cities across the province.
The collaboration between the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), the government body overseeing the project, and Wifigen came about when Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) won a tender for the project. PTCL then conducted a market survey to find the best company to build a portal which could authenticate users for Wi-Fi hotspots.
Talking to TR Pakistan, PITB Information Technology Director (IT) Sajjad Ghani said, “Wifigen stood out from other applicants because they were an innovative company which already had experience setting up something similar.” Several meetings later, they were ready to embark on this partnership.
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The Punjab Wi-Fi hotspot project aims to bridge the digital divide by providing free, easy and reliable internet access to everyone. Wi-Fi hotspots have been set up at educational and government buildings, public parks, market places, hospitals, railway stations, airports and bus stations in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Multan, Bahawalpur and Murree.
Citizens can find the nearest WiFi location through a map provided on the website. They can also download the Punjab Wi-Fi application for Android phones for this purpose.
Users must enable enable Wi-Fi access on their device and connect to the SSID ‘PunjabWi-Fi.’ A user registration page then opens in the web browser. The user must enter their cellphone number on this page and will receive a PIN code through SMS which must be entered on the same registration page. After this, users will be asked to provide information about themselves, such as their name, occupation, email address and date of birth, before they are officially registered for the service. Once the registration is complete, the Wi-Fi service will be enabled, allowing the users to surf the internet free for 120 minutes at a time.
A user must provide their cell phone number and the PIN code if they wish to use the Wi-Fi again. After providing the SMS code, they will get a notification welcoming them back to service once again.
The entire registration and verification processes, including the encryption and security features for the Wi-Fi hotspots, have been set up by Wifigen.
Bilal Athar, founder of Wifigen said, “We have also made a cloud-based portal and dashboard for the PITB through which they can see how many people are using the service. They will also be able to tell who all are logged on at a time. If there is any problem, the PITB can identify who caused it and where the problem is occurring. This insight will help them resolve the situation quickly.”
Athar said that this is the biggest project Wifigen has worked on, owing to its sheer scale and size. The startup, which was incubated at Plan9 and later accelerated at PlanX in Lahore, also saw this project as their way of giving back to the community.
“The PITB and its technology incubator and accelerator have been the major force behind our growth. We started this company from scratch. Now we want to give back and see how well the product can perform,” Athar said.
PITB Chairman Dr. Umar Saif said, “It is wonderful when a startup collaborates with the government to provide services to citizens in the country. There are many advantages associated with free Wi-Fi hotspots. People will be able to use free internet not just for entertainment but also for genuine needs.”
Ghani says, “There are many hospitals which barely get phone signals because of low coverage or because signal jammers are placed there as a safety measure. In this case, people can use the free Wi-Fi instead to contact their families.” In libraries and universities, students would be able to use the service for academic work, he said.
This project is part of the PITB’s vision for smart cities. Ghani says more gadgetry could be added to the system for surveillance and monitoring the environment.
He says the best response to the free WiFi system has come from Multan, where a large number of users were using the service at various parks and hospitals late into the night.
“There is a new trend where university students are working on their final year project with the intention of turning it into a startup. For this to happen, they need a strong user base. The more internet users there are in the country, the more hits their applications are likely to get,” Athar says.
By 2018, the PITB and Wifigen will get a clearer picture of how much their user base has improved. They hope that this project might encourage telecommunication companies to reduce the costs of 3G or 4G services.
However, when people use a free Wi-Fi hotspot they have some privacy concerns about the data that being collected by the government. Athar says, “Usually the terms and conditions as well as privacy policies for such applications are written in a language that most people don’t understand. If you go to our policy page, you will see that everything is being stated in a very clear and straightforward manner. We say exactly why the government is taking your data and we are not hiding anything.”
The PITB has also established a mechanism for users to provide feedback on the service. A call center with a toll-free number has been set up to address complaints and concerns. A citizen’s feedback mechanism is also in place to robocall users and get feedback from them. Users can also email the department at Wi-Fi@punjab.gov.pk and Wi-Fi@pitb.gov.pk for more information.