In an event targeted at Google’s India initiatives to bring another billion citizens online, the company said that internet access was a huge problem in the country. To change that, Google already has put in place projects like bicycles for women, Project Loon and RailWire WiFi.
The company is particularly bullish about its RailWire WiFi project that will provide free WiFi across railway stations in India. It said that people will be free to access anything they want on the internet and there will be no special zero-rated services.
Upholding Net Neutrality
“It is not our intention to provide a walled-garden to use only Google applications,” said Marian Croak, Google’s vice president for access strategy and emerging markets. She added that Google is building the WiFi on the top of fibre infrastructure and the company will have no role in controlling the content on the network.
Gulzar Azad, head of access programs in India, said that the speeds on public WiFi will be higher than the average speeds in India, which according to the latest Akamai report is 2.3 Mbps (which seems to be too high for India). Azad added that the goal of the project is to provide high-speed, fast and reliable internet. “I don’t think zero-rating plays a role here,” he added responding to a question from MediaNama.
Mumbai Central is likely becoming the first WiFi-enabled station in January 2016, and 100 railway stations will have WiFi by the end of 2016. The company is still trying to come up with a monetization model to make the project commercially sustainable.
Not Strictly Against Zero Rating
However, Google hasn’t been averse to zero-rating in the past. Google used to be a member of Internet.org in Zambia and has done zero-rated deals in India in the past with Airtel. It was also planning on an Internet.org style service for apps and was in discussions companies like Flipkart, Redbus, Olacabs and others.
Facebook, which has been the leading proponent of zero-rating, has repeatedly said that cost of data is one of the biggest barriers for internet access in India and its Free Basics program will be a big step in getting the economically weaker groups online. During the event yesterday, Zuckerberg’s thoughts on affordability were somewhat echoed by Rajan Anandan, Google’s Managing Director South East Asia and India, though he did not comment on zero-rated services or their perceived benefits.
“Many of these new [internet] users will find that even Rs 100, 200 or 300 is actually an amount of money that that they can’t really afford to spend,” Anandan said. “Affordability, which has been a constraint across many industries in India, will become even more acute for these new set of internet users,” he added.
Update: Google has clarified that it is no longer a part of Internet.org in Africa.