Inside Google-RailTel’s Wi-Fi partnership is a Great Learning – a Review on the Initiative

NEW DELHI: As a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative, the Indian Railways have partnered with Google to provide Wi-Fi Broadband facility to passengers at major railway stations across the country.

The Google RailTel initiative was launched in January 2016. Till date Google in partnership with RailTel, a subsidiary of Indian Railways, has reached 140 stations across India and offers speeds ranging from 20-40Mbps. Their lofty aim is to reach as many as 400 stations by 2018.

The main goal of the RailTel initiative is to bridge the digital divide and provide the masses with reliable and fast internet so that they can remain connected, do their work, watch videos and so whilst waiting for their trains. Under this initiative, RailTel provides the high speed network via Fiber lines while Google proved tech support and sets up the wireless infrastructure.

Google’s reasoning behind entering into a partnership with Indian Railways to bring high-speed internet at class A and A1 railway stations internet is both sound, forward thinking and intelligent:

“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. Imagine the amount of population that will pass through the top 100 stations of the country in a year or two. Being a point of transit, it is not not the same 10 million people every day,” At Nizamuddin Railway station alongwith the personnel from Google and RailTel interacted first-hand with passengers on the ground as well as workers who spend their whole day at the railways station.

Mumbai Central a learning lesson

Currently, Google RailTel has over 6.5 million (65 lakh) monthly users. The first station to get the free public Wi-Fi service was Mumbai Central in January 2016. Google says they learnt a lot from their first experiment at the Mumbai Central station.

Apart from a few niggles, the Wi-Fi works quite well most of the time and delivers fast speeds

For example, they realised they should not put routers in open areas and foot over bridges as that leads to people using the internet extraneously. A RailTel representative quoted examples of people just standing at the foot over bridges for hours and clogging up bandwidth.

They also realised that the stations experience huge power surges when the trains roll in for which they were not prepared initially. It took Google 45 days to set up the wireless infrastructure in Mumbai Central – it now takes them just 14 days.

How is the RailWire Wi-Fi set-up?

Railtel has 45,000 kms of fiber internet connectivity across 4,000 – 5,000 railway stations across India. The problem is that it is all wired. This is where Google steps in. Each station is individualistic and has its own set of challenges which are identified and worked upon.

They do not put Wi-Fi in open areas because the signal can spread out and can result in a poor experience for the user. So wherever there is a roof in a station, Google installs routers spaced 50 metres apart. Footover bridges are also not covered because of potential of misuse and interference cause by the metallic structure.

Google then does a preliminary site survey to identify the civil infrastructure – how the station is designed. Then the company identifies all the potential hotspot locations in order to make a preliminary coverage map which is then submitted to RailTel. Then after approval is recieved, the installation of the infrastructure is finally done.

Google says they have a kind of ‘township’ coverage that ensures steady speed and signal across the whole station. There are Wi-Fi access points every 50 meters horizontally and also every 25 meters diagonally.

A great, future-forward initiative

The sign-up process is as easy as it gets. All you have to do is choose Google RailWire under WiFi settings, punch in your mobile number, enter the OTP you receive via SMS and you’re good to go. When we asked the people working at the station (who have been using the service for a long time) about the sign-up process, they were very impressed with how easy and uncomplicated it was.

Google’s free Wi-Fi service works on a model where there is no cap on the volume of data consumed. However, as there are no free lunches in the world, there is a time limit after which the speed of the internet gets gradually reduced. How this works is fascinating as well as complicated.

The three biggest challenges facing the project are lack of awareness, speed throttling in peak hours and the threat from cheap 4G services

For the first 30 minutes, a user gets access to the highest speed of the network (between 20-40Mbps), after which the network is dynamically adjusted in such a way that priority is given to those who are logging in for the first time. Simply put, after 30 minutes you may not be able to stream HD quality videos but you will be able to perform use case scenarios like running apps like WhatsApp and Messenger, opening social media websites and so on.

During our interaction at Nizamuddin railway station, people in general seemed happy with the Wi-Fi services. Most people remarked that apart from a few niggles (which we will talk about below), it works quite well most of the time and delivers fast speeds. What was fascinating to note is that while most people claimed to use the service for entertainment, we did see a few cases of school boys using the Wi-Fi to send pictures of a textbook to their friends, senior citizens using it to read books and so on.

This ties in well with several examples that were given to us by Google and RailTel representatives about how the Wi-Fi is being used for more than just entertainment. As the Google Wi-Fi project moves from tier 1 to tier 2 and tier 3 cities, its impact grows as many people without previous access to Internet get connected.

What are the challenges faced?

The three biggest challenges that Google free Wi-Fi project faces as of now is lack of awareness, speed throttling in peak hours and the threat it faces from cheap 4G services like Reliance Jio.

When we interacted with people waiting for their trains and workers at Nizamuddin railway station, a common thread emerged – people preferred using their Jio 4G connections over Google’s free Wi-Fi during peak hours. In the afternoon apparently the speeds slow down quite a bit due to heavy traffic which overloads the servers and subsequently throttles speeds.

When we addressed this concern to Mr Gulzar Azad – Google’s head of connectivity, he said “This is exactly what we were expecting. Once people start experiencing high-speed internet, the user behaviour changes – the expectation now is higher. There is more demand for less and less latency in the network.”

As the Google Wi-Fi project moves from tier 1 to tier 2 and 3 cities, its impact grows as many people without previous access to Internet get connected

Another reason people prefer using their 4G data connection over Google’s Wi-Fi service is the fact that high-speed access is limited to only 30 minutes. Mr Azad has this to say when we asked him if Google RailTel’s strategy had changed in any way since Jio revolutionised 4G data rates in India –  ” What we have seen is that as 4G has emerged, we have seen no dip in the Wi-Fi usage. If you talk about the time when ‘free’ 4G started emerging, we were at about 5 million (50 lakh) monthly active users, today we are at 6.5 million (65 lakh) monthly active users. So the RailTel initiative has only grown since then.”

The lack of awareness is an issue that Google is acutely aware off which is becoming exacerbated as the project moves from tier-1 cities to tier-2 and 3 towns. While a lot of effort needs to be done even in metropolitan cities, not many people expect there will be such high speed Wi-Fi in railway stations in tier 2 and 3 cities especially.

This is what Mr Azad had to say about the awareness challenges – ” We have tried a few things, we have tried LED boards as you can see, we have tried beacons at the station to give alerts to people as they walk in that Wi-Fi is available here. Indian Railways needs to find some creative ways to use the stalls etc to let people know. Because finally this is a great advancement. If you compare this with Wi-Fi in London and San Francisco, you will find that the Wi-Fi is better in both coverage and capacity.”