At the beginning of this year, Google launched what it calls “the largest public Wi-Fi project in the world”, with the aim of setting up free Wi-Fi networks at 400 train stations in India.
Five months later, over 1.5 million Indians are already using its services at 19 train stations across the country.
For its first phase this year, Google is working on getting 100 of India’s busiest train stations online, in partnership Railtel, the telecom department of the Indian railways. Reaching the mark of 1.5 million users is in keeping with Google’s larger aim of reaching 10 million Indians at 100 train stations.
“A majority of India continues to access the Internet on a narrow band network, limiting their experience of Internet to basic activities,” Google India said in a statement.
“Easy and affordable access to full fidelity broadband network continues to be a challenge in India and is throttling the economic impact that Internet can have on the country.”
The company isn’t entirely off the mark. India has the second-largest number of Internet users after China, at an estimated number of 402 million. Yet, the country’s average connection speed is a paltry 2.8 Mbps, the slowest in the Asia-Pacific region.
“India has 350 million Internet users, yet 40% of these use limited data on their phones. So even are more users are coming online and the digital divide is diminishing, the experience divide is growing,” Gulzar Azad, head of access programs at Google India, told Mashable.
“Bringing people online is a beginning but not sufficient for the success of the Internet. For that, we need to create experiences that are high-speed.”
The biggest impact of Google’s Wi-Fi project seems to be in India’s smaller towns and cities, where high-speed broadband access is still limited.
“People are searching for infotainment, but anecdotally, we also know that they are downloading education courses or upgrading their phones or looking for jobs,” Azad says.
“It is across a wide demographic, with people arriving much before their time for boarding a train, just to access the Internet.”
Azad cites the example of Bhubaneswar and Pune, where the Wi-Fi project is popular with students who come to look up exam results, upgrade their apps, download software and educational courses
While Google declined to reveal the average speed of its Wi-Fi networks, it says that its aim is to ensure that every user has access to Internet that is fast enough to enable high definition video streaming. While Wi-Fi remains free for now, Google says Railtel may experiment with charging users for the service beyond an initial free time period to make it financially viable.
To set Wi-Fi connections in 400 train stations, Google plans to use Railtel’s 45,000-km fibre optic network. Each station comes with its own set of challenges. Some stations such Mumbai Central date back to the British-era, with the roof being extremely high, while others such Gorakhpur, which has one of the longest railway platforms in the world, span a large area.
“You have to deploy access points at every point, including waiting rooms, reservation area, concourse and platforms,” Azad says. “This is not just a hotspot network, but township Wi-Fi.”
Google’s plans to connect India don’t just end here. The company is also in talks with the Indian government to provide Internet connectivity through its Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to beam Wi-Fi to remote areas where last mile connectivity might not be financially viable.