“Hey Prabhu! Yeh Kaise Hoga?”

Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu uttered this seemingly innocuous line during his Railway Budget speech yesterday. However, this just about perfectly sums up the Indian Government’s comedy of errors with respect to introducing Wi-Fi service at railway stations and trains across the country.

The Minister mentioned during his budget presentation that Wi-Fi service will be introduced at 400 A and A1 category railway stations, and the service will also be extended to category B stations. His predecessor D. V. Sadananda Gowda had also mentioned that Wi-Fi service will be provided at A and A1 category stations, during last year’s Railway Budget.

A timeline of plans for Wi-Fi service at railway stations & on trains:

– Back in 2006, RailTel’s then AGM (Business Development & Public Relations) Shailesh Tiwari had mentioned in an interview that they had plans to create Wi-Fi hotspots at more than 500 stations and extend services to areas near the stations as well. Over 8 years have passed since then and RailTel and Indian Railways have managed to introduce Wi-Fi at a total of 2 stations: Bangalore and Delhi.

– Wi-Fi service had been introduced on a pilot basis on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shatabdi Express, in January 2009. Techno Sat Comm, the company providing the service, had plans to provide the service on 200 trains over the next five years and invest Rs 700 crore for the same. What’s Techno Sat Comm up to these days?

– In June 2009Zylog Systems India had announced plans of introducing wireless broadband service on trains – starting with the Chennai-Bangalore-Chennai Shatabdi Express. However, we never heard any updates regarding this ever since.

– A few years later, in April 2013, Indian Railways launched a pilot project to provide Wi-Fi facility on the Howrah Rajdhani Express (after initially announcing it in February 2011). At the time, Indian Railways had mentioned plans to expand this service on other Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto express trains based on customer feedback received during the pilot.

– Wi-Fi service was launched on a pilot basis at New Delhi railway station, in July 2013. It took about one-and-a-half years for this service to get out of pilot mode. In December 2014, passengers at Delhi station started getting free Wi-Fi access for half an hour everyday. After half-hour of free usage, the service costs Rs 25 for 30 mins, and Rs 35 for an hour of extra time. Extensions can be purchased online through credit cards or by buying scratch cards at Wi-Fi help desks available at Paharganj and Ajmeri gate sides of the station.

– A few months earlier, in October 2014, free Wi-Fi service had been introduced at Bangalore City railway station. Similar to Delhi, passengers got 30 minutes free access after which they had pay for extra browsing time.

– In November 2014, MTS India had partnered with the Indian Railways to set up Wi-Fi hotspots at Agra, Ahmedabad & Varanasi railway stations by the first quarter of 2015. It remains to be seen how this pans out. It’s worth noting that MTS India had tied-up with Rapid MetroRail Gurgaon Limited (RMGL) to provide free Wi-Fi services on all trains running on the 5.1 Km long six station corridor.

No mention of Wi-Fi in trains: Interestingly, during yesterday’s railway budget presentation the Minister completely ignored introduction of Wi-Fi in trains. This is surprising because in December last year Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha informed Rajya Sabha that the Indian Railways had fixed a budget of Rs 98.6 crore to provide Wi-Fi facility in 50 rakes of Rajdhani, Shatabdi & Duranto category of trains. This budget was nearly double the Rs 55 crore estimated budget the Indian Railways had mentioned for introducing Wi-Fi facility in these trains, in August 2014.

On-board entertainment: The Minister also mentioned that on-board entertainment will be introduced on select Shatabdi trains on license-fee basis, and depending on passenger response it will be extended to other Shatabdi trains. We’re assuming this means video and music streaming services will be provided, however details are still sketchy. However, this begs the questions: How will passengers access these streaming services if Wi-Fi access isn’t provided inside the train? Mobile network is flaky at best on trains and can’t be depended on for streaming content.

It’s worth noting that online streaming service ErosNow had tied-up with RailTel to offer passengers at railway stations across India access to its entertainment content on their mobile devices, last month. The service is already live at Bangalore and Delhi railway stations, where Wi-Fi hotspots have also been introduced.

Also Read: Railway Budget 2015: Multi-lingual ticketing portal, SMS alerts, On-board entertainment