Commuters using Google-RailTel’s wifi networks at railway stations for heavy downloads

Data from 15 stations reveals that railway commuters in tier-II cities are streaming movies, upgrading phone software and conducting other heavy-duty downloads using these networks.

Railway stations may be the next cyber cafes of small-town India.

Unlike in big cities where broadband access is more plentiful, people from India’s smaller towns are finding that walking into a railway station is a gateway to high-speed Internet access, and they are making the best use of it.

Data from 15 stations, where Google has installed high-speed WiFi networks, reveals that railway commuters in tier-II cities are streaming movies, upgrading phone software and conducting other heavy-duty downloads using these networks.

“We are focussing on not just high download speeds but also streaming speeds because the highest usage comes from applications such as videos, upgrading phone software, uploading high-quality pictures and other heavy downloads,” Gulzar Azad, head of access, Google India, told ETin an exclusive chat.

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Pleasant Surprise for Google

As a result, stations in tier-II cities consumed 20 times more data than those in tier-I cities, say Google officials, who add that absolute number of users logging into Google’s WiFi networks in smaller cities has pleasantly surprised them.

“After Mumbai Central in January, we did a big launch in Bhubaneswar (station), which overtook Mumbai Central within a day of the launch (in terms of) consumption,” said Azad. Mumbai Central, one of the busiest stations in the metropolis, had 1,00,000 users of the network per week. Bhubaneswar surpassed that mark in a day.

“Similar usage patterns started to emerge in tier-II cities like Patna, Jaipur, Ranchi and so on,” said Azad. In September 2015, Google had tied up with Indian Railways and its telecom arm RailTel to provide high-speed WiFi coverage in 400 stations. RailTel has 45,000 km of fibre optic network across the country that Google is hopping on to for its WiFi network.

Google says it has rolled out the service in 15 stations so far, including towns such as Kacheguda, Raipur, Ranchi and Ujjain. The company says it has over 4,30,000 users on the network every week, up from the over 3,00,000 users last month. By the end of the year, Google plans to roll out the WiFi service in 100 cities across the country. In aweek, Google plans to connect Gorakhpur, Lucknow Junction and Sealdah stations.

Whatever be the reason – poor quality of mobile data networks or the famous Indian love for freebies – rail commuters are bingeing on free data. The average user is consuming 10 times more data than he would consume on a 3G pack in a day, say Google officials.

To put that in context, industry reports suggest that users consume about 25 MB of 3G data in a day. That would put average user consumption of data in stations at about a staggering 250 MB per day. That, despite being in “a transit environment”.

The rollout of WiFi hasn’t been without challenges for Google. Each station throws up its own set of issues: from power availability to people density to the very architecture of the station. For example, Gorakhpur has one of the world’s longest railway platforms (1.35 km).

“Many of these stations were built during the British era, so they have very high rooftops. Some of them are really big in terms of platform area some have 16 platforms, some have only a few platforms, which also changes many aspects. Power reliability in Uttar Pradesh, for example, will be different from how it is in Kerala,” said Azad, adding that 10-20 teams of design engineers work simultaneously to ensure a uniform experience across all parts of a station.

Source: Economic Times