Feature story

Net set, go

Free WiFi at 4,791 rural railways stations across the country — that’s the goal of a partnership programme on the fastest of tracks

It’s the railway station at Degana, a small town in Rajasthan that lies between Jodhpur and Jaipur, and 22-year-old Deepak Kumar has the worldwide web at his fingertips and on his cellphone. And so does 24-year-old Rishal Mahajan, about 800km away, at Raver railway station near Jalgaon in Maharashtra. The best bit to byte on?

Mr Kumar and Mr Mahajan don’t have to worry about connectivity or cost.

The two young men have plugged into the free WiFi service being provided by Indian Railways at its stations and they are among thousands of Indians availing the facility. That figure will likely jump to millions when the objective of an ongoing partnership between the Railways and the Tata Trusts is realised — providing WiFi access for free at 4,791 railway stations across the country.

More than 3,000 of these stations already have the service in place and the vast majority of them are in rural regions. The overriding intent behind the Railways-Tata Trusts collaboration was to ensure greater adoption of the internet and enable India’s vast hinterland of rural communities to benefit.

The initiative began in late 2018 with a pilot project where internet connectivity was set up at eight stations between Bengaluru and Mysuru. The big and proper free WiFi plan started being implemented in July 2019 and progress has been exceptionally fast since.

Speed was of the essence and the spread of places to be reached the stiffest challenge. It has all to do with size and the reason is simple: Indian Railways is a behemoth. With a track length in excess of 120,000km, some 8,000 railway stations and about 1.3 million employees, this is an entity — an institution even — that carries more than 23 million passengers and 3 million tonnes of freight every single day.

Enabling internet connectivity has been a long-time goal for the Railways but there were a host of hurdles in the way. Over the years, 1,600-plus railway stations, most of them in urban centres, had been WiFi-enabled. That was the easier part. The tough nut to crack was going rural, which meant offering the service in outback locations.

The remote challenge

“We had to get the equipment transported, assembled and commissioned at the remotest of sites,” says Sreeram GC, a technology advisor at the Trusts. “This was something that even RailTel [the telecom infrastructure provider owned by the Railways] had not been able to accomplish for years.” The Trusts pulled in external expertise to manage the technical aspects and RailTel itself has been a key partner.

Equipment selection is a crucial factor in ensuring the facility’s viability and the Trusts have chosen the advanced GPON (Gigabit Passive Optical Network) and switching (carrier ethernet) technologies. “This was a critical factor because the equipment is out in the open,” explains Mr Sreeram. “We found that this combination meets all the requirements: managing dust, the weather and vibrations from passing trains.”

The job of installing and commissioning the equipment was assigned to Bengaluru-based Tejas Networks, which has experience of setting up WiFi spots in rural India, having completed a project connecting some 5,000 villages to the internet grid. Tejas put its teams in the field and they fanned out across the railway-station network to set up the infrastructure. The task of project management and auditing was given to Tata Communications Transformation Services.

A collaborative endeavour all the way, the project has come up solid and at speed. “Within three months we had installed the equipment at more than 3,500 stations and commissioned it at more than 3,000 stations,” says Mr Sreeram.

Under their ‘digital transformation’ portfolio, the Trusts have employed technology in a number of interventions. Among the standouts: 60,000 rural women being trained to use digital devices for the benefit of their communities; data analytics becoming a part of daily governance in several districts; and migrant children getting the benefit of digital education cards.

With the free-WiFi project, the home straight has come into view but the pace has slowed. “The last 500 stations are the most challenging,” adds Mr Sreeram. “They are the most remote, many with no power or fibre connectivity, or with bandwidth issues. We are trying out different solutions in these places.”

Once complete, the project will be a tremendous asset to the nation. The system can supplement BharatNet, the public sector broadband network that aims to eventually connect more than 250,000 village councils. “The government can use the Railways’ WiFi infrastructure to connect local schools, hospitals and community centres to the net,” says Mr Sreeram.

The biggest beneficiaries, of course, will be rural residents, primarily passengers and others who visit railway stations. For them, free WiFi translates into getting on the digital track at no cost. And there’s no danger of getting waitlisted.