Just last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that over two million people were now using the free Wi-Fi deployed by the search giant, along with RailTel, at major railway stations across India every month. Interestingly, they are using 15 times more data than they would on their cellular networks on an average day.
There is sound logic behind Google collaborating on bringing free high-speed internet to railway stations. “Railway stations are the one place where you can get reliable power and fibre, thanks to RailTel. Importantly, almost all of the demographic of India passes through these stations,” explains Gulzar Azad, head of Access Programs, Google India.
Since the first station, which was Mumbai Central, in January, Google has connected 23 more—Bhubaneswar, Pune, Bhopal, Ranchi, Patna, Ernakulam Junction and Visakhapatnam. The plan for the world’s largest public Wi-Fi project covers 100 railway stations.
Google’s motivation, Azad says, is that while India has been moving in the right direction when it comes to the coverage—taking so many people online—a majority of these people are barely online and use limited data with limited knowledge of what can be done. The so-called “full fidelity internet” is limited to just the top band of users, where they use broadband and high-speed mobile internet for everything from education to entertainment. “While the digital divide is being addressed and will go away globally in a matter of time, the experience divide is growing exponentially, more so in India,” he says. The experiential divide, he explains, is the difference between how those with full fidelity internet experience compare with others. “This experiential divide will cost India billions of dollars in times to come.”
Google was pondering where it could see the experience divide plaguing internet users in India the most, and that is when it zeroed in on railway stations. “Imagine the number of people passing through a railway station in a span of a year. For the top 100 stations that we are going to address this year, 10 million will be passing by those stations every single day,” says Azad. He adds that since these stations are points of transit, it will not be the same 10 million people who experience free Wi-Fi every day. “We will actually be going through the population of the country over a period of time.”
For Google to bridge this experience divide, it was crucial to provide a “township kind” of experience. “So there is full coverage and very high capacity, with every station being backed by 1Gbps plus backhaul through fibre. And there are ‘n’ number of access points across the station so that every single user is able to access HD video stream, which needs a reliable, consistent and low-latency network,” explains Azad.
Google wants to offers the same experience across all stations that it is connecting. So a person travelling on a long-distance train from, say, Ernakulam Junction to New Delhi gets the same experience at all connected stations along the way. “Even in the first phase, the idea was to go across the country and this is why we have already connected at least one station in all of the Indian Railways’ 16 subdivisions,” says Azad. He adds the project is actually Google engineering at work, in terms of designing the network and ensuring the experience is great.
While Pichai said that users on its free Wi-Fi consume 15 times more data than their mobile network in a day, what is startling is this is done in transit within an hour—as there is a cap on usage at stations. This changes the paradigm when it comes to understanding the demand in India. “This will tell us what the strategy has to be if you are going to connect the next billion. I don’t think it is going to be one strategy or a solution to build this kind of internet for the next billion. We haven’t collectively thought of it in the light of this definition,” says Azad, underlining how this makes for it a “bigger, steeper challenge.”
There have been anecdotes of people buying platform tickets just to use the Wi-Fi. Azad says he doesn’t have any data to back this up, but adds that some people who are using the service daily see this as a convenience and, at times, come early so that they can finish some work or download some YouTube videos. “We have seen students doing that. I see this as a good problem to have.”
While Google’s free Wi-Fi at stations is capped at one hour per user, there is no cap on the volume of data as of now.