Connecting the unconnected via RailTel
Since independence, India has taken incremental steps forward as most democracies do through policy interventions. Sometimes political will, imaginative bureaucracy and disruptive technologies can combine to create a policy which can be revolutionary and create a game changing shift in how society communicates, conducts business and consumes content.
One such policy indeed was the New Telecom Policy 1999 (NTP99), which brought a revolution in Indian Telecom market. helped the Indian Telecom industry to transform into to a multiplayer competitive market with life changing impact for every Indian.
VoicenData Bureau | voicendata
On the turn of the century, when the term millennial was not yet coined, the technology which defines millennials took root. In might be interesting for some to note that RailTel was formed around the same time in the year 2000 with objective of modernizing railway signalling and Telecom and enable broad band and multimedia across the country. In the early years, RailTel grew with the telecom industry and became a carrier's carrier as the mobile networks grew much faster than their OFC networks.
The then Hon'ble Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpayee, in the AGM of FICCI in 2000, said: 'Railways are a key infrastructure whose better functioning will help the economy in a big way. However, they need urgent reforms. The Management of the Rails needs radical restructuring to separate Rail operations from planning and policy making. Large investments in renovation and modernization are required to improve safety standards.
"Clearly, we need to increase the investible funds for the Railways through innovative, Non- traditional and commercially oriented methods. The creation of RailTel Corporation is the first step in this direction."
With the opening of FDI in telecom around 2000, the telcos started accelerated roll out their own OFC networks and RailTel started diversifying to stay relevant Over the years, the biggest challenge for the telecom players has been developing state of the art telecom infrastructure to provide cutting-edge service to the users.
But, it has been a bumpy road owing to various road blocks, profitability of building infrastructure in rural areas being the major one. 70% of the Indian population resides in tier 2/3 cities or villages and the paying capacity of these people are very low.
Investing a large amount of money for building telecom infra in these areas, especially the villages, were never a profitable option for the private telecom payers as the return on investment would have been very low.
Role of BharatNet
To solve this issue, Government of India has rolled out a number of ambitious projects to connect the unconnected, BharatNet, being the largest of them. This project envisages connecting all Gram Panchayats with optical Fibre Network bringing telecom infra to rural India.
RailTel is a proud partner of many of the Government projects which is about connecting the rural disconnect. BharatNet, National Knowledge Network are to name a few. But, for us, the most successful project in direction of achieving the Digital india dream is our station Wi-Fi project.
RailTel had capacity in the station, but did not hold spectrum or access networks to take it to the communities. Railtel evolved two different strategies. One was to collaborate with entrepreneurs like local cable operators, etc., to deliver broadband to homes and offices, which we market under the band name of RailWire. The second initiative was to create an impact by transforming the Indian Railway stations into the hubs of Digital inclusion.
The vision of the National Broadband Mission, launched on 17th December 2019, is to fast-track the growth of digital communications infrastructure, bridge the digital divide, facilitate digital empowerment and inclusion. Much before this, RailTel started providing free high-speed Wi-Fi at the railway stations.
Currently, 5,500+ stations across the country have free Wi-Fi and the mission is to provide Wi-Fi at all (except the halt ones) railway stations. The Wi-Fi is being provided under the brand name of Railwire- the retail broadband service of RailTel. The response to this Wi-Fi network has been phenomenal and as per data of December 2019, the number of user logins in this network is 2.5 crore consuming 10,242 TB data.
While enabling high-speed network access to all rail users, it also enables financial inclusion, access to the underprivileged for a range of government programs and generation of opportunities for local employment.
The average monthly footfall of at Indian Railway stations are 680 million + and opportunity for the station Wi-Fi platform is vast and we are looking towards growth in user numbers tapping more and more users in coming times with addition of more and more stations.
In extension to station Wi-Fi, we have come up with the concept of Railwire Saathi to carryout assisted internet usage and to develop rural entrepreneurs- who will man the Railwire Saathi kiosks we are building at 200 stations, as a pilot, to extend various online e-governance services of Government of India to the rural population. The concept of Railwire Saathi will help to ensure productivity and sustainability of Station Wi-Fi initiative.
At the end, I would like to stress on the fact that currently Indian Telecom Market is going through a tough phase as the profitability is falling fast leading to consolidation and exit of players. Digital being a national strategy for empowerment and development, India cannot afford an oligopolistic environment.
Perhaps, 20 years after NTP 99 we need another imaginative policy intervention to take the sector to the next level. The governments push on BharatNet could be a game changer if we can dovetail sustainable business models with the infrastructure. RailTel is deeply invested in this space and we are working on a few strategies around Wi-Fi and we are more than keen to do our bit for the success of BharatNet.
- Puneet Chawla
- The author is CMD, Railtel.