Google is bringing free WiFi to train stations in India—but there’s a catch

India and Silicon Valley unite.
India and Silicon Valley unite.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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To help connect the nearly 1 billion Indians who lack internet access, Google plans to install high-speed WiFi access points at 400 rail stations in India.

The announcement comes on the heels of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Google’s headquarters on Sunday. One of the big themes of his Silicon Valley tour—which also included stops at Facebook and San Jose’s SAP Center—is connecting all 1.25 billion people in India to the internet, part of his Digital India initiative. In the past year, 100 million people in India accessed the web for the first time.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who grew up in Chennai and attended the renowned Indian Institute of Technology, also championed the cause. “There is no more important role for tech companies today than helping to connect the next billion internet users,” he said in a video message welcoming Modi to Silicon Valley. Making the web accessible to everyone, he argued, will bring more economic opportunities to people in rural areas, especially women.

Google, of course, is also experimenting with beaming internet to remote regions via balloons. But unlike its moonshot projects, its Indian railway initiative already has legs. Partnering with Indian Railways, a state-owned entity that operates the country’s extensive rail network, and RailTel, which operates a fiber network along many of the rail lines, the first stations will begin broadcasting WiFi “in the coming months,” according to Pichai. The plan is to expand that network to 100 of the busiest stations by the end of 2016. Coverage of those 100 stations will make WiFi available to more than 10 million people, and he said the remaining rollout will happen “in quick succession.”

Map of the WiFi access points that will be deployed at India’s rail stations.
Map of the WiFi access points that will be deployed at India’s rail stations.
Image: Google

“This will rank it as the largest public Wi-Fi project in India, and among the largest in the world, by number of potential users,” Pichai said in a blog post. “It will also be fast—many times faster than what most people in India have access to today, allowing travelers to stream a high definition video while they’re waiting, research their destination, or download some videos, a book or a new game for the journey ahead.”

And while the WiFi will be “free to start,” that’s not part of the long-term vision. Pichai notes the plan is to make the project “self-sustainable,” so it can expand to other places. It’s unclear when the transition will happen or what access will cost, but it’s possible the internet might continue to be out of reach for the very people Google and Modi’s Digital India initiative are trying to connect.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.