RailTel, a Mini Ratna CPSU under the Ministry of Railways, has been entrusted with the task of completing PM Narendra Modi's ambitious project of equipping all Indian Railways stations with free WiFi. This is one of a kind project for India as this is one of the largest and fastest public WiFi networks of the world.
RailTel, a Mini Ratna CPSU under the Ministry of Railways, has been entrusted with the task of completing PM Narendra Modi’s ambitious project of equipping all Indian Railways stations with free WiFi. Interestingly, RailTel is the only consistently profitable and dividend paying Telecom CPSU under the central government. Having completed the work of providing high-speed free WiFi at around 700 Indian Railways stations, it is now hoping to provide free WiFi on all stations. In an exclusive interview with Financial Express Online’s Smriti Jain and Devanjana Nag, Ashutosh Vasant Director at RailTel and also the man heading the ambitious projects says that the Railwire WiFi project was a challenging one. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about the RailTel project to provide WiFi on railway stations across the Indian Railways network. How many stations have been covered so far, what is the target and are you in talks to cover more railway stations?
This is one of a kind project for India as this is one of the largest and fastest public WiFi networks of the world. WiFi services to passengers are being provided under ‘RailWire’ brand, the retail Broadband initiative of RailTel. RailWire WiFi is available to any user who has a working mobile connection for KYC considerations. The response to the service has been phenomenal. We have around 8 million unique users per month, of which nearly 25000 per day are first time users, making this the world’s largest Public WiFi network. This equips every starting and terminating station of almost every train on the railway network with a WiFi equipped station. The Ministry of Railways desires expansion of the service to all Railway stations of the Indian Railway network.
How has the collaboration with Google and DoT been? What did these two bring to the table?
For providing high speed WiFi at 400 A, A1 and C category stations, RailTel roped in Google as the technology partner for radio access. In this partnership, RailTel is providing high speed end to end network connectivity on fiber, the backbone network, the data center services and Google is providing the radio access network along with technology support on radio network design. DoT entrusted RailTel with WiFi at 200 rural railway stations under Universal Service Obligation Fund of DoT. This fund is used to develop telecom infrastructure in the uncovered portion of the country.
What are the WiFi speeds like and how has the response been in terms of average footfall on a station viz a viz the average number of users who use WiFi?
For the modern handsets supporting 802.11 ac, the speeds can go as high as 40 mbps for the first 30 minutes of unhindered open access which is unmatched on any other network. The backbone capacity of each station is 1 GBPS and upgradable as per need. The response to the service has been phenomenal. We have around 7.5 million unique users per month, of which nearly 25000 per day are first time Internet users, making this the world’s largest public WiFi network.
How does this public WiFi compare to international standards?
The RailWire WiFi network is rated as one of the world’s largest and the fastest Public WiFi network by independent rating agencies. The smoothness and speeds as enjoyed by the user are unmatched. The entire backbone as well as the station fiber and radio network are designed to offer multiple levels of redundancy to ensure unique user experience. The network as created at each such station creates a high-speed bus for many other promising initiatives of RailTel adding unique user experience, that follow.
What are the stages of planning involved in a project of this scale?
The work of providing WiFi in railways stations requires multi-level planning before execution. For a large station, two sets of surveys – Civil survey and Radio survey – are done as the first stage of planning. In the next step, with the help of blueprint of the station, a schematic design/diagram for placing equipment is made. The next step is to send the design to railway authority for approval. Considering various factors like railway operational requirements etc either approval is given or modifications in the design are suggested. After getting final approval from railways on the design/modified design the execution part starts. In this stage, all the equipment is installed and cabling as per the design is done to create high-speed WiFi access points across the station. In the final stage, once the WiFi system is set, there is a multi-stage testing of the WiFi before it goes live for the users.
How does the provision of WiFi on an A1 or A category railway station differ from that of a station in rural India?
The biggest difference between the A1, A category stations and rural stations is the scale of network related to the size of the stations and footfall. Rural stations are smaller and see lesser footfall compared to A1, A category. Once we had the experience of providing WiFi at large stations it was easier for us to create similar WiFi service for the smaller stations with the learnings we had.
What is the biggest challenge that you faced when you set out to do this project? Is there a particular railway station which worked as the biggest learning experience/challenge?
The project of providing WiFi at railway stations is a very challenging one in many aspects. The large size of stations, thick stone walls blocking coverage, every station design being unique the fitments need customization, huge footfalls, various hindrances for the WiFi signal, power issues, redevelopments of stations and ongoing construction activities at stations are some of the major challenges we have faced while executing the project. In the very initial stage, we faced the problem of WiFi signal getting disturbed due to EMI (Electromagnetic interference) at railway station due to flashing/arcing of AC 25 KV electric traction. This was one problem which we didn’t foresee and after a lot of brainstorming the designs were changed to deal with the issue. This was a big learning for us.
Also, the A1 and A category stations are large in size with a huge number of visitors every day. The planning and designing placements of access points had to be done meticulously so that all users can enjoy a seamless service at all points of the station. Bigger the station more challenging was the designing part. For example, Howrah, one of the largest stations in India, is equipped with 100+ access points across 23 platforms, waiting halls etc. Planning, approval and execution for stations like this require a longer duration.
The station is so busy with passenger traffic that most of the installation of equipment and cabling was done at night so that the work doesn’t create a hindrance for the public. This WiFi project was one of a kind and we didn’t have any precedence to learn from/follow. And after completing 650+ stations with superlative user experience across the country we can proudly say that we have created a precedence now.