AT LEAST 75 lakh users consumed more than 7,100 terabytes (TB) of data in April alone at 370 railway stations offering WiFi services — the equivalent of almost 23 lakh high definition (HD) movies streamed online or about 5,000 days worth of audio.
Data consumption also saw a four-fold jump over the last year: Compared to April 2018, 60 lakh people in 110 stations consumed 1,600 TB in March 2017. And, the usage pattern suggested high consumption and more users in several non-metro cities: Almost 10,000 users in Pune, Allahabad, Vijayawada, and Visakhapatnam consumed, on average, over 2 TB of data.
The figures were compiled by RailTel and Google, which teamed up in 2016 to hook 400 stations to public WiFi and completed the project about a week ago. “[The project] validates our belief that there is this huge data hunger in India,” said K Suri of Google’s Next Billion Users Initiative.
According to Prasanto Roy, vice president of NASSCOM, Internet in India is penetrating into the next 300 million users, who consume less text and more video because they are largely non-English speaking and have lower literacy levels.
“They watch streaming video off WhatsApp-shared links, YouTube. They listen to audio. They do video chats. Some of them were earlier, perhaps, watching videos on mobiles via shared or rented SD cards; now, they are downloading videos on either free WiFi or cheap usage plans. So their average demand for and consumption of data is higher than the first 300 million,” he said.
While metros accounted for an increase of more than 60 per cent in mobile subscriptions between 2011 and 2017, the rest of the country saw a roughly 85 per cent increase, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).
“The data hunger in India is driven, to a great extent, by video streaming which contributes as much as 70-75% of mobile data traffic,” said Rajan S Mathews, director general, COAI. At this rate, the association estimates, India will consume 14 exabytes (or 1 million TB) of data per month in five years, compared to 1.3 exabytes last year.
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) numbers show that an average mobile subscriber consumed almost 2,000 MB or 2 GB data per month. And with fixed WiFi networks, usage shot up to 8.5 GB per month, according to Nokia. A TRAI report in April estimated that WiFi will drive about 60 per cent of Internet traffic in 2021.
Both RailTel and Google said their initiative was just the beginning of more connectivity projects.
“The reality is that when we conceptualised the entire thing, it was unbelievable to have WiFi broadband in one of the toughest places in India — railway stations,” Google’s Suri said. The project ran into initial engineering difficulties with electrical interference and heritage preservation of century-old stations.
In 2016, RailTel began linking optic fibre cable that follows the railway tracks to the roofs of train stations, as Google — often with the help of third-party implementors — began designing and deploying station access points.
Suri said the service shows advertisements during the login process and gives a share of the revenue to RailTel. As an experiment, WiFi speed drops after 30 minutes unless users pay for continued connectivity, according to Google.
RailTel’s Sucharita Pradhan said, “This Wi-Fi project was one of a kind and we did not have any precedence to learn from. And after creating one of the largest public Wi-Fi networks in the world we can proudly say that we have created a precedence now.”
RailTel has since floated a tender for WiFi projects in 7,700 more stations.