Railways to tap into Telecom Dept fund to bankroll WiFi in 200 Small Stations

The move is part of Indian Railways’ plans to get all its 7,500-odd stations hooked to a countrywide free WiFi ecosystem in a phased manner. The synergy with the USO funds of the Department of Telecom will help Railways defray part of its costs from the fund meant to provide for connectivity to rural and remote areas.

NEW DELHI: The Indian Railways has decided to tap into the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) of the Department of Telecom to bankroll Wi-Fi connectivity in 200 small railway stations in India. Thus far, the Railways have only managed to connect a few big railway stations with Wi-Fi but find it difficult to get sustainable financial support for smaller stations.

Railways is in talks with the Department of Telecom to bankroll Wi-Fi connectivity in 2,000 other small stations from USOF as part of the NDA government’s internet-for-all initiative through the free-Wi-Fi-at-stations project.

The move is part of Indian Railways’ plans to get all its 7,500-odd stations hooked to a countrywide free Wi-Fi ecosystem in a phased manner. The synergy with the USO funds of the Department of Telecom will help Railways defray part of its costs from the fund meant to provide for connectivity to rural and remote areas.

The USOF is generated through a Universal Access Levy (UAL) — a prescribed percentage of the revenue earned by telecom licencees — and is statutority mandated to provide for information-and-communication technology connectivity to uncovered areas. Funding connectivity needs at smaller stations fits the statutory mandate of the USO fund, officials suggested.

With competing financial demands from safety to modernisation to capacity expansion in the Indian Railways, the financial support from USO fund could be a boon for the national transporter, since station WiFi is a pet project pushed by PM Narendra Modi in all meetings. There has been little progress beyond the bigger stations in this regard as the Railways has been struggling to secure viable financial support for it to cover all its smaller stations.

In this context, sources said that of the 200 stations for which the DoT has given sanction, 144 are E-category stations, in remote areas where Railways’ annual commercial earnings are less than Rs 50 lakh from each station. A station’s commercial earnings are from train ticket sales from windows, platform tickets, parcels, etc. The transporter categorises its stations based on their annual commercial earnings.

While RailTel, the telecom PSU owned by Railways, partnered with Google to set up free high-speed Wi-Fi at 400 of the busiest stations in the country, the project appeared stuck for want of a workable revenue model for stakeholders at the smaller stations. Officials suggested that by using USO money for the project, the government could have worked out a viable solution.

Railways officials highlighted the challenge in covering smaller stations. For example, officials monitoring the project suggest that for Google, the minimum threshold is 10 million subscribers per month in each station using its Wi-Fi.

Western Railway plans to restrict free Wi-Fi at suburban stations to prevent overcrowding

Free Wi-Fi at suburban railway stations in Mumbai contributes to overcrowding, the Western Railway said in an audit report. The railways is planning to restrict the frequency of free internet to decongest railway stations. This comes a month after the stampede at Elphinstone Road railway station in September, which claimed 23 lives.

The audit report mentions that non-commuters also stand at foot overbridges and railway stations to use the free Wi-Fi while some use the internet to watch pornography. “Hence, it is recommended that the availability of Wi-Fi should be restricted to main concourse hall, and not extended to all platforms or foot overbridges,” media quoted the audit report as saying. “A provision shall also be made to switch off the Wi-Fi at night.”

Free Wi-Fi is available at 15 stations across the Western Railway, including Mumbai Central, Dadar, Bandra, Andheri and Khar Road. “We have already sent the recommendations to the board, and it is a matter of a day or two before we get the green signal,” Chief Public Relations Officer (WR) Ravindra Bhakar told.

Apart from restricting Wi-Fi, the authorities may also consider clearing unwanted structures, toilet blocks and food stalls to allow for easier movement at stations. Vendors and hawkers carrying luggage may also be restricted from stations during peak hours in the morning and evening.

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