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January 18, 2016updated 10 Nov 2017 10:24am

Going online: Google brings Wi-Fi to Indian railway stations

A partnership between Google and Indian Railways will see high-speed Wi-Fi deployed at 400 railway stations across the country, making this the largest public Wi-Fi project in India. While the first 100 stations are already preparing to go online before the end of 2016, why were railway stations chosen as hubs for digital expansion and what opportunities for development does greater connectivity open up for India?

By Eva Grey

In September, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the technology giant is throwing its weight behind an ambitious project: over the next three years a collaboration between Google, the Indian Government and its main rail operator will deliver fast, reliable Wi-Fi connectivity to 400 of India’s biggest railway stations.

The announcement coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the company’s US headquarters. His meetings with Silicon Valley’s internet giants, including Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe were part of a strategic tour to garner support for his Digital India initiative,¬ a wide-spanning project designed to bring enhanced digital literacy to India.

The wealth of potential for India’s internet expansion is undeniable: while over the past year alone 100 million people in India started using the Internet for the first time, nearly one billion people are yet to go online.

Despite having more users than every country in the world aside from China, India’s Internet penetration rate stood at only 19% last year, one of the lowest worldwide, according to Internet Live Stats resource.

But all this is about to change. Statista predicts that India’s internet users will double to reach over 411 million in 2018, a projection in keeping with United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020.” It is no wonder that Google wants a share of the boom yet to happen in India. After all, enhancing internet connectivity to spur socioeconomic advancement in developing countries is not a new idea, but it is indeed a win-win situation for both parties.

Quoting a World Bank report, India’s Governance Now director Kailashnath Adhikari highlighted that a 10% increase in broadband penetration increases the per capita GDP by 1.38% in developing countries.

With work already under way to bring the first station online, how will this initiative stand out from Google’s past forays into India’s digital potential, and what role do the country’s railway stations play as avenues for growth and development?

Why begin an internet revolution through the Railways?

“Even with just the first 100 stations online, this project will make Wi-Fi available for the more than 10 million people.”

Breaking the news on Google’s official blog, Pichai introduced the project by reminiscing about his “day-long railway journeys” between his native city’s Chennai Central station and IIT Kharagpur, referencing the “incredible scale and scope of Indian Railways”. Dubbed by its official catchphrase “Lifeline of the nation”, the state-owned operator has grown to encompass one of the largest railway networks in the world, with over 115,000km of track.

Embedding Wi-Fi into railway stations is not a random choice: the reach and impact of these transport nodes is impressive. As Pichai points out, “even with just the first 100 stations online, this project will make Wi-Fi available for the more than 10 million people who pass through [them] every day.” As soon as the first stage is completed by the end of 2016, the project will rank as one of the largest in the world by number of potential users.

To achieve this, the tech giant has seen its fast broadband provider Google Fiber join forces with Railtel, a unit of Indian Railways and the dominant telecom infrastructure provider in India.

At present, Railtel has over 45,000km of optic fibre network installed across the railways network in India, connecting over 4,500 cities and towns and over 5,000 railway stations in the country. It is this network that Google will feed into to power its Wi-Fi connection to all 400 designated stations identified as part of the project.

Railtel has also recently announced plans to double its turnover by 2017, 10% of which usually stems from Indian Railways, and also grow its optical fibre network by another 5,000km before March 2016. The company is confident that its partnership with Google will help promote its retail brand and further garner user interest.

Details emerge as first station prepares for upgrade

The first tangible details of the project surfaced in October, when works started at Mumbai Central Station as the first station to be connected. A Railtel press release specifies that the Wi-Fi will be free for the first 30 minutes over a 24-hour period, after which it will become a paid service. Google clarifies that the long-term goal is to turn this project into a “self-sustainable” service, and “allow for expansion to more stations and other places, with Railtel and more partners in the future”.

It is expected that once online, users will be able to stream HD videos on their devices and passengers will be able to download a film in just four minutes. The selected stations fall within the A and A1 categories, according to India’s classification of its train stations based on passenger traffic and subsequent earnings.

Although a commercial agreement between the companies has not yet been settled, Railtel marketing director Seshagiri Rao Annangi was quoted by Indian media as saying Railtel expects to source its revenue from Google advertising and mobile data offloads from mobile operators. Speaking to the Business Standard, Annangi announced at the end of September that Railtel would soon float a tender for global companies to offer Wi-Fi for the next set of 300 stations across smaller towns.

A digital future and opportunities for development

Google’s current foray into India’s digital potential is not a stand-alone scheme. The tech company’s project is an integral but small part of the much broader Digital India initiative, seen as one of the top priority projects of the Modi administration. Launched on 1 July 2015, Digital India is a three-year long project with multiple avenues of action. At its core, the project aims to realise the widespread creation of digital infrastructure, increase digital literacy and universal phone connectivity and install 400,000 Public Internet Access Points, among other goals.

One of Modi’s most ambitious targets is to drastically reduce the country’s imports of electronics by 2020, opting for localised production instead.

The fact that Google chose to align its efforts with a government-funded, wide-spanning project might be key to its success, especially after its recent attempt to introduce Android One to the Indian market turned into a bitter disappointment due to slow adoption and a general lack of interest from consumers.

“Railway stations, being places of human aggregation of all sections of society, are ideal places to bridge the digital divide,” Annangi said. “With high penetration of smartphones, the station Wi-Fi could become locations where people can get initiated into experiencing broadband and digital literacy.”

“Railway stations, being places of human aggregation of all sections of society, are ideal places to bridge the digital divide.”

In a statement, Railtel also expressed hopes that the availability of high-speed connectivity “can also spur the vendors in the railway stations to offer new services and also create the possibility of building an [Internet of Things] ecosystem […] paving the way for railways to automate operations like monitoring of rolling stock and efficient use of electrical lighting systems.”

Challenges and hopes for a connected society

Questions have been raised over the provision of content, and more specifically, how to provide useful and educational content to the masses once the digital infrastructure is already in place. Discussing the next step in the process and its perceived challenges, Railtel’s marketing director RK Bahuguna said: “We don’t have the content. The government has been taking initiatives to promote content in two most important areas: health and education. But what we lack at is implementation and funds.

“We have taken initiatives to provide computer and internet connectivity to educational institutions, but just providing these is not enough. They need content that is bit regulated and useful at initial stages.”

Nevertheless, Google is certainly hopeful, especially since the current project marks another territory conquered in the digital battle with rival company Facebook, after consistent efforts on both parts to establish a strong presence and capitalise on the Indian market.

But most importantly, it is India and its people who are the real winners, soon to enjoy greater connectivity and the opportunities for economic, social and cultural development this project brings.

As Pinchai puts it, “thousands of young Indians walk through Chennai Central every day, eager to learn, to explore and to seek opportunity. It’s my hope that this Wi-Fi project will make all these things a little easier.”

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