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Google seeks to connect India with railway Internet project

The tech giant introduced a plan on Sunday to provide free Wi-Fi service to 400 train stations across India, but other proposals, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Digital India' initiative, have been met with controversy.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi discusses India's digital initiatives at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. on Sunday. Google is partnering with the country to provide high-speed wireless Internet service at 400 railway stations across India.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

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With its announcement on Sunday that it will begin rolling out free Wi-Fi service to 400 railway stations across India, Google is expanding a growing effort by American tech companies to equip the developing world with high-speed Internet.

About 100 of the country’s busiest stations will have Wi-Fi by the end of 2016, Sundar Pinchai, the company’s chief executive officer, wrote in a blog post.

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India currently has about 350 million Internet users, the second highest in the world behind China, and Mr. Pinchai says he hopes to focus on the next billion, particularly women, who now represent about a third of the country’s Internet users.

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“We’d like to help get these next billion Indians online — so they can access the entire web, and all of its information and opportunity. And not just with any old connection — with fast broadband so they can experience the best of the web,” he wrote.

The company’s announcement comes as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the US, focusing particularly on Silicon Valley, where he met with executives from Microsoft, Apple, Tesla Motors, Facebook and other tech firms over the weekend. Mr. Modi met with Mr. Pinchai, who was born in India, at Google’s headquarters on Sunday.

Many Internet sites – from Amazon to Youtube to the messaging service WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook – are already popular in India, the New York Times reports. But in an effort to expand their users, and perhaps their profits, into one the world’s most populous countries, American tech companies have increasingly focused on India’s “unconnected billion.”

They are particularly courting the tech-savvy Mr. Modi, who shared several photos from his visit this weekend on Twitter:

Google’s announcement comes amid other proposals, such as a push by Indian-born Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to expand low-cost broadband Internet service and cloud computing to 500,000 villages, the Times of India reports.

But amid the inspiring rhetoric from Modi, who briefly choked up during a town hall event on Sunday with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg while describing sacrifices made by his mother in raising him and his siblings, other notes of discord have crept in.

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Over the weekend, several tech CEOS, including Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Nadella, pledged their support for the prime minister’s “Digital India” initiative. The program aims to expand broadband access and develop online tools to improve the country’s government, but it has been criticized by activists in India for failing to provide full privacy protection to people whose data it uses.

Earlier this month, a group of 100 prominent American academics argued the government had also suppressed criticism of the initiative.

“We are concerned that the project’s potential for increased transparency in bureaucratic dealings with people is threatened by its lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse,” they wrote in an open letter to the Silicon Valley heads.  

“As it stands, ‘Digital India’ seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally- protected rights of citizens.”

Facebook's Zuckerberg has faced similar controversy. The company’s Internet.org service, introduced two years ago as a way to provide low-cost Internet services to four billion people in 19 countries, including India, has been accused of violating net neutrality rules.

With critics saying it limited Internet access to services from a small degree of partners while keeping others out,  the company recently rebranded the service as “Free Basics” and included 60 additional services, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Google’s railway Internet proposal, which follows an effort to launch low-cost smartphones called Android One, may prove less controversial.

Pinchai stressed that the railway project – which involves collaboration with Indian Railways and RailTel, a government-owned telecommunications provider that brings Internet service to the railways through its fiber network – could have a widespread impact, particularly because it will begin as a free service.

It also has a particularly personal meaning for him.

"When I was a student, I relished the day-long railway journey I would make from Chennai Central station (then known as Madras Central) to IIT Kharagpur,” he wrote in announcing the project. “Just like I did years ago, thousands of young Indians walk through Chennai Central every day, eager to learn, to explore and to seek opportunity. It’s my hope that this Wi-Fi project will make all these things a little easier.”