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Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Google ‘Station’ free WiFi at railway stations to shut down: What happens next?

Google's 'Station' wifi program, which provides free internet at nearly 400 plus railway stations in India will wind up in 2020. So what happens next, and why was the program shut down, despite being hailed a success?

Written by Shruti Dhapola | New Delhi | Updated: February 18, 2020 2:54:49 pm
Google, Google RailTel, Google Station, Google Station WiFi, Google Station WiFi shutting down, Google free WiFi shutting down, Google station Google Station, the free WiFi service at the railway stations in India is winding up this year. File photo of Caesar Sengupta, VP- Payments and Next Billion Users Google at an Google for India event talking about the Google Station service. (Image source: Shruti Dhapola/Indian Express)

Google’s ‘Station’ wifi programme, which provides free Internet at nearly 400 plus railway stations in India, will wind up in 2020. Globally too, Google will wrap up the programme, which was available in other countries like Nigeria, Thailand, Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa.

The programme was first announced in September 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Google’s campus in Mountain View, California. The first station to go live under this was Mumbai Central in January 2016 and Google had partnered with the PSU Railtel for the service. This was also part of Google’s ambitious ‘Next Billion Users’ (NBU) programme, which aims to develop services for users who are not yet online.

So why is Google ending the ‘Station’ free WiFi service?

Caesar Sengupta, VP-Payments and Next Billion Users Google, wrote in a blog post explaining that they would be shutting down the service by 2020 since the market has changed drastically.  While the blog post does not mention it, Google’s contract for the Station WiFi program with RailTel was also till 2020, and is ending. 

Google, Google RailTel, Google Station, Google Station WiFi, Google Station WiFi shutting down, Google free WiFi shutting down, Google station Users had to sign in via an OTP on their mobile phone, to use the Google Station WiFi on their phone.

According to the blog post, one major reason is  the availability of cheaper mobile data across the board. With low-cost mobile data enabling more users to come online in the Indian market, ‘the relevance’ of Station WiFi has also diminished in the last two years.

“It’s clear that since we started five years ago, getting online has become much simpler and cheaper. Mobile data plans have become more affordable and mobile connectivity is improving globally. India, specifically now has among the cheapest mobile data per GB in the world, with mobile data prices having reduced by 95% in the last 5 years, as per TRAI in 2019,” Sengupta wrote.

In 2018, Google had announced it would bring the Station Hotspots to Pune as well. It had partnered with Larsen & Toubro to bring 150 Google Station hotspots to Pune for the Pune Smart City Development Corporation Limited’s Smart City project. Google informed us that L&T will execute their contract with Pune Municipal Corporation, and they will assist in a smooth transition to ensure that the WiFi facility continues for users, though the Google Station branding will disappear.

For Google, the NBU program is about getting more and more users online, especially those who face access issues for various reasons, be it high costs of data prices or lack of devices.

Does this mean free WiFi at all railway stations will end?

While the ‘Station’ service from Google will be winding up, this was a partnership with Railtel, which will continue to provide the free WiFi under its RailWire program.

RailTel, which is a public sector undertaking, will continue to provide free WiFi at over 5,600 railway stations across the country. It already provides free WiFi in 5,190 plus stations. The 400 plus stations where Google ‘Station’ was present, will be serviced by RaiTel, going forward.

Google had the service live in over 400 plus stations in India. (Image source: AP)

The pan-India optic fiber network on the railway track is owned exclusively by RailTel, which laid out over 45,000 km this network across the country. This is what Google was utilising for the Wi-Fi and had set up the points of access at platforms.

“In this partnership, Google provided the RAN and technology support and RailTel provided the physical infrastructure and internet bandwidth (ISP). But going forward, apart from these 415 stations, we have also provided free WiFi in 5190+ B, C, D stations as well,” RailTel said in a statement.

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How did the Google ‘Station’ service perform in India?

In June 2016, just a few months after the service launched, Google claimed it had 1.5 million users across 19 stations. Then in 2018, Google had shared numbers showing heavy duty usage for the service. It was reported that nearly 75 lakh users consumed more than 7,100 terabytes (TB) of data in April 2018. This is when the service was live at some 370 railway stations.

The data also showed that nearly 10,000 users in Pune, Allahabad, Vijayawada, and Visakhapatnam consumed over 2 TB of data on average thanks to the free WiFi service. There were also anecdotes about how people were buying platform tickets to use free Google Station WiFi to download movies, watch YouTube and even complete their daily work.

Why did Google set up WiFi at railway stations?

One reason why railway stations were chosen by Google was because of the reliable power and fiber networks as well as the sheer number of people, who pass through these on a daily basis in India.

In 2016, Google’s Gulzar Azad, Country Head – Connectivity in India had explained to indianexpress.com, “Railway stations are the one place in India where you can get reliable power, fiber thanks to RailTel and most importantly almost all of the demographic of India passes through these stations.” In the top 100 stations alone, there are 10 million people passing by daily, which was a sizeable number of users that Google would be able to cater to.

So was there a decrease in usage in 2019?

While traffic remained by and large stable for the free WiFi service, in Google’s view the context has changed drastically given that mobile data prices in India are now the lowest in the world, and users are consuming more and more of their mobile data itself.

The problem of cheaper data access appears to have been resolved for the most part in India, which is another reason why the program is winding down. The blog post also mentions that there are “varying technical requirements and infrastructure among our partners across countries”, which has also made it difficult for Station to scale and be sustainable.

With public WiFi, Google had different partners in different countries, each of which had their own protocols and maintaining one standard was also a change. It also required a lot of customised hand-holding by Google, depending on the region, which added to the challenges for the company.

When Google had launched the service it had said it saw a potential of 10 million users and wanted to provide broadband quality experience when using its Wi-Fi. The company had said it wanted to maintain speed, efficiency across a board of devices on this free WiFi. There was no data cap limit on the usage, though a user could only access for it an hour.

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