The Google RailTel initiative, which was launched in January 2016 has to date reached 140 railway stations across India and claims to offer speeds ranging from 20-40Mbps. A part of Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India initiative, the main goal of this program 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 more while waiting for a train at railway stations.
It is a great example of a public-private partnership – RailTel, a subsidiary of the Government of India provides the high speed internet network on Fiber while Google sets up the wireless infrastructure and provides tech support. They aim to reach 400 stations by the end of 2018.
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. For Google, this is an ecosystem project – the more people use the internet, the more they inadvertently use Google services.
However, in the timeframe between the start of the initiative and the present, the situation has changed dramatically. The RailTel initiative started before Jio revolutionised the telecom sector with its disruptive plans offering free voice calls and a gigabyte of 4G data a day. The biggest question now is has the shakeup of the telecom sector and the widespread and cheap availability of 4G data since the entry of Jio affected the Railtel initiative in any way?
Has Jio 4G affected Google’s RailTel initative?
I had the opportunity to witness Google’s RailTel initiative at Nizamuddin railway station and see how the free Wi-Fi actually works, the speeds on offer and how it has affected people’s lives. I also interviewed many workers and passengers at the station and asked them to share their experiences and purviews which led to some remarkable insights and observations.
During my interaction with workers at the Nizamuddin railway station which included coolies, those who manned the tea stalls and book shops and the guards, almost every one of them singularly said they preferred using their Jio 4G SIM over the free Wi-Fi available at the railway station.
When prodded for a reason, the insights were fascinating. First – some facts. Google’s free Wi-Fi service works on a model where there is no cap on the volume of data consumed. However, there is a time-based cap on the speed of the network. How that works is a bit complicated – for the first 30 minutes, a user gets access to the highest speed of the network. In my experience, those were around 18-20Mbps on average (pretty fantastic).
Workers at the station preferred using Jio 4G over the free Wi-Fi due to network congestion in peak hours and the fact that speeds get throttled after 30 minutes
However after the 30 minutes, there is no minimum speed as such. But the network is dynamically adjusted in such a way that priority is given to those who are logging in for the first time. In simpler words, the internet is configured in such a way that while you will still be able perform certain use cases after the high-speed cap gets over after 30 minutes, you will not get the highest speeds.
That is basically why workers (who work for long hours at the railway station) prefer their Jio 4G SIMS over the free Wi-Fi – because after 30 minutes, the speed gets throttled. What is fascinating is that not everyone seems to have same experience after the high-speed speed ends. Some of the workers said that the speeds feel as bad as 128kbps while others said that they could stream decent quality video for 24 hours!
When I asked Mr Gulzar Azad – Google’s head of connectivity if Google’s RailTel strategy had changed in any way after Jio’s entry into the market, this is what he had to say – ” 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.”
However, we must take into account that the monthly active users has risen because the number of stations has risen quite a bit since the initiative started. In fact, since the beginning of the project, the time limit of the high-speed data has actually reduced from an hour to 30 minutes. This might be another reason why people are preferring to use Jio 4G over the free Wi-Fi as the speeds get reduced after only 30 minutes of use.
Heavy traffic in peak hours
A common complaint that passengers waiting for trains and workers both had was that the server gets overloaded at peak hours. In the afternoon apparently the speed slows down because of heavy traffic, while at night it works very well. When I addressed this issue to Mr Gulzar Azad, 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.”
A great initiative that needs to prepare for the future
However, the situation is not all doom and gloom. What I was surprised to note is that almost everyone at the platform that was engaged in their phones (that I approached) was connected to the free Wi-Fi. When asked about the method of connecting to the network, almost everybody was impressed with how easy and uncomplicated the process is.
Also, passengers waiting for a train (who, unlike workers are there for only short intervals of time) had little to complain about the initiative other than the fact that the OTP sometimes takes a long time to appear. I also noticed a bunch of school boys using the Wi-Fi to send pictures of a textbook to their friends. This highlights the fact that the Wi-Fi is being used for more than just entertainment.
Almost everybody was impressed with how easy and uncomplicated the login process is
All in all, Google RailTel is a great initiative by Google to help connect the masses and help bridge the digital divide. More than just the numbers, the impact is growing as Google expands from tier 1 to tier 2 towns. During the interaction, representatives from Google and RailTel stressed on how people in small cities were using the free Wi-Fi for work, to download textbooks and for much more productive causes.
However, cheap 4G services from the likes of Jio are a very real threat to the initiative and Google needs to pull up its socks and prepare itself for the next rush of users. The time limit for high-speed data cannot be further reduced. In the future, the traffic will go up as awareness increases and the infrastructure will need to be buffed up accordingly.