Google and Railtel Wednesday launched free WiFi services at Dibrugarh – the 400th Indian Railway station to benefit from the joint project – marking the completion of what began at a joint announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Google CEO Sundar Pichai at the Google headquarters Moutain View in Silicon Valley.
Speaking at the launch in Dibrugarh, K Suri, Director, Partnerships, Google India said the completion of the project before its December deadline was an indication of the effort put in by both Google and Railtel. “Nothing can be better in reaching out to the masses than through existing railway infrastructure which enables us to even reach the hinterlands,” Suri said.
“This is a great example of how to create quality WiFi access network that provides great user experience,” he said, adding that, for Google, the focus now is on “how to provide the next one billion users with high-speed internet access.”
K Manohar Raja, Executive Director, Enterprise Business, Railtel said the service reaches out to people from all strata of society as they all use the Indian Railway services. “The idea behind the project was to design a WiFi system that would create a wow experience and the usage we are seeing is a testimony to that.”
What do the numbers say?
– There are about 8 million active WiFi users across 400 railway stations in India.
– Two-thirds of the free WiFi consumers are in the age bracket of 19-34.
– Almost half of the users log back in multiple times of the day.
– About 36 per cent of these users are first time WiFi users.
– The average data consumed per user per session is 350 MB (The internet speed slows down after 30 minutes of usage).
– Railway stations in Tier 2 cities (Bhubaneswar) sees higher data consumption than those in tier 1 cities (Mumbai).
It’s free WiFi, why not use it?
While the idea behind the project was to provide railway passengers with good internet at railway platforms, the free WiFi project has, in turn, benefited several more, including students, shopkeepers and railway employees.
Sanjay Yadav, a licensed porter at Guwahati railway station, uses the service primarily to download songs or stream Hindi music on YouTube. Originally from Varanasi, Yadav has been living here for the past four years. “I don’t have any fixed working hours and my room is right outside the station so most of my time is actually spent here.” Yadav recently bought a mid-range smartphone for about Rs 10,000 and says he barely uses the data his mobile network provider gives him.
For passengers like Shivaji B, a Naik in the Indian Army who is on his way home from Tezpur, the service is useful given he reached the station via a connecting train hours in advance. “What do we do for so many hours? Sometimes our train is delayed too. We can at least watch some videos and catch up with the news till our train comes. Now the railways lets us track our train so we can track that as well.”
“How does the piston work?” This is just one of the many videos students like Suren Basumatary watch on YouTube, sitting at the Guwahati railway station post his theory classes at the nearby ITI Guwahati centre. He’s at the station three times a week.
“We get very limited practical knowledge. So we need to see such videos to get a better understanding specially in the automobile industry world,” Suren says, adding that the exposure available on the internet is very useful and should be easily accessible. “The speed slows down after half an hour but the video still doesn’t buffer.”
Amit Kumar, originally from Silchar, lives at the railway station. He is a server at the railway canteen and puts in long hours. He gets time between meals to catch up on the latest viral videos. “My friends send me lots of videos on WhatsApp. It’s now so much easier to download and watch. This is unlimited so it’s not a problem.” Amit, glued to a railway pillar where his phone is charging at a free public charger, says the benefeciary of this scheme are those who cannot afford even cheap mobile internet. “There are still those who can’t pay Rs 400/month but they want access to the internet. This helps.”
What next for Google’s Next Billion Users and Railtel?
Suri says while the free WiFi service at these 400 railway stations will continue for at least five years – according to the contract – Google India is now looking at expanding its Google Station project by tying up with telcos and ISPs.
For Railtel, the project to provide free WiFi to B and C category stations will continue. “We will roll out our services to more stations and talks are underway with new partners,” Raja said, adding that there is also a need for assisted internet, where entrepreneurs will be roped in to help people access internet services. Railtel has Railwire Saathi which is already working on the project of assisted e-commerce.