(with inputs from Salman SH)

More than 1.5 million users have accessed Google and RailTel’s free high-speed*  WiFi service across 19 railway stations, while being at just 20% of the roll out schedule for this year, Google said in a blog post. Last month, Google said that the free WiFi service on railway stations crossed 300,000 users per week, and that Bhubaneswar crossed 100,000 in a single day once (thought, to be honest, that might have been due to the novelty factor).

1.5 million for wired Internet is not an inconsequential number: it is more subscribers than most ISPs in India get: India had 19.60 million wired Internet connections in September 2015, and none of the top wired-only ISPs had a million connections:

ISP India Sep 2015

Google is planning to cover 400 stations, and their data indicates the unmet demand:

  • Exponentially high consumption in Tier-2 cities where getting high speed broadband is tough: In addition, users in Tier-2 cities like Bhubaneshwar, Patna, Jaipur, where consuming more data when compared Tier-1 cities like Mumbai, added Google.

“Users in tier 2 cities latched onto the network with more enthusiasm and we saw much higher consumption of data in tier 2 cities, where access to high speed broadband is more challenging,” said Google in the blog post.

  • 15 times more data used than average daily 3G usage: Google claims that the average data consumption per user on train platform is 15 times more than their average daily 3G pack usage, according to data from its internal servers.
  • Users are coming to stations to download software, upgrade apps: The free WiFi service was mostly used to consume infotainment services, but Google said that a lot of users in tier 2 cities utilize the network to search and apply for jobs online. Students from Tier-2 cities like Bhubaneswar and Pune ‘come to the stations’ to search information on educational courses, exam results, downloading softwares and upgrading their phone apps, said Google.

What does this indicate? Firstly, that people want high speed broadband, and for free. Secondly, if they’re given higher speeds and lower costs, they’ll consume more data: it’s a move from dialup to broadband. Thirdly, they need cheaper and faster data even for essential things like software updates.

For all you know, they might settle for a wireline connection that is cheaper and faster than their 3G connection. The fact is that, at least in our experience, many Public Wifi connections are useless: they barely work, they’re poorly maintained, are difficult to connect with, speeds are poor, and often communication to citizens, that there is free WiFi in the area, is non-existent. It’s also unfortunate that policy has been maneuvered into a situation where mobile operators are our primary source of Internet connectivity, and much more needs to be done to free up broadband.

Other public WiFi initiatives in India:

– Last month, state owned telco BSNL said it extended its WiFi internet facility across 1,227 location by installing 2,505 Wi-Fi hotspots. BSNL said it was working on setting up 40,000 WiFi hotspots across the country to make up for the lack of its own 4G services. In November, Facebook and BSNL entered into a partnership to create 100 WiFi hotspots in rural areas in India.

-In April, Delhi metro users were all set to get free high-speed WiFi service across all stations including 222 trains, 187 stations through a partnership between Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRCL) and network providers including Techno Sat Comm and PING Network.

– The same month, Firefly Networks said it would provide WiFi internet access at Delhi’s Karkardooma Court Complex.

– In the same month, mobile payments and commerce company Paytm had started offering free WiFi service as a pilot project.

– In February, the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) said that it would launch WiFi at 144 major bus stations across the state.

– In January, Ortel Communications introduced free public WiFi hotspots for its broadband subscribers, as a value added service in Bhubaneswar.

– Internet service provider Joister also launched Joispot WiFi, a free public WiFi initiative in Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Pune, with speeds of upto 2Mbps.

– The Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and telecom operator Tata Docomo signed a partnership to offer free WiFi services, to be provided around PJ Tower in Mumbai to the public.

Regarding Google’s High-speed claim: A report from Telecomtalk said Google’s Free WiFi service offered speeds above 8Mbps, which is quite impressive considering the amount of users latched on to the network.