In 2015, Google unveiled Google Station, a program for WiFi hotspots across many train stations in partnership with Indian Railways and the ISP RailTel. On Thursday, Caesar Sengupta, who heads a wing of the company focusing on emerging markets like India, announced that the program’s goal of covering 400 stations has been completed. The 400th station to be covered is Dibrugarh station in Assam.
“There are now over 8 million people getting online with Google Station every month,” Sengupta said in a blog post announcing the milestone. “On average, people consume 350MB of data per session, roughly the size of a half-hour television episode and over half of the people using Google Station engage in multiple online sessions a day.”
WiFi hotspots in India
Google manages the WiFi network at these 400 stations, while RailTel provides the fibre infrastructure. The company has not taken any significant steps to monetize Google Station, aside from placing ads on the WiFi login captive portal. Google has also partnered with Pune’s municipality to install 150 WiFi hotspots in some of the city’s public spaces.
This development comes as TRAI workshops its Aadhaar login-based WiFi hotspot architecture. WiFi hotspots are highly regulated in India since operators need special permission to resell bandwidth and have to verify the identity — via SMS-based one-time passcodes — of every user who signs up on the network. This essentially means that only large conglomerates, established telcos and government organizations are in a position to set hotspots up. TRAI’s Aadhaar-based architecture aims to resolve this scarcity of hotspots by standardising the captive portal and authentication side of things. This also accommodates the ‘security concerns’ usually displayed by government agencies whenever the prospect of widely available WiFi hotspots is raised.
“TRAI should remove regulatory hurdles that currently prevent the deployment of public WiFi, and then allow the market to discover the best technical and business model,” the Internet Freedom Foundation* said in response to a TRAI consultation note, arguing against such an architecture.
* The author has interned at the Internet Freedom Foundation during the creation of the cited TRAI response and provided assistance for that process. Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, is a co-founder and current chairman at IFF.