Rail Budget 2013: How feasible is Wifi on trains?

Yesterday during the Railways Budget Speech for the year 2013-2014, Railways Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal proposed that the ministry would try and provide free Wifi facility in some trains. Obviously it is safe to assume that these will be in the high-end trains like the Rajadhani and Shatabdi.

The minister's proposal has predictably sparked off jokes on Twitter, with many questioning whether it will actually be possible to have 'functioning Wifi' on a running train in India. In fact the hash tag, Free Wifi is still trending on Twitter.

While the promise is a welcome idea, here are a few questions that we raise about the feasibility of having free Wifi on a running train?

1) Signal connectivity: This is going to be the biggest challenge. If you've traveled on a long train journey, say from Mumbai to Lucknow, one of the first things that goes is mobile phone connectivity. The reality is that a lot of India, has zero or very little signal connectivity. So how will the government ensure Wifi connectivity in such scenarios in anyone's guess. To ensure constant connectivity, would require a lot more infrastructural investments and more signal towers. You can also check out this post on how China's Beijing-Shanghai train loses its 3G once it moves out of Beijing.


Representational Image. Reuters

The connectivity issue is not just for a long distance journey. Even a short six hour journey from Lucknow to Delhi via the Shatabdi doesn't ensure constant mobile or 3G via dongle connectivity for me. So yes, while the idea is great, it needs to be backed up with some solid infrastructure commitments as well.

2) Population problem: A railways coach in an third AC-Chair car has around 72 seats. The standard number is 72 for most railway coaches. A lot of those people do have smartphones, laptops etc. Imagine more than 50 people with their various devices trying to get access to wifi on a router attached to the corner of a train coach. It's highly unlikely that the speed is going to be very fast.

The other problem is that in India, we have very little civic regard for public property. One of the most common jokes on Twitter was that Wifi routers from the trains are likely to get stolen. Sadly this is the truth. I've seen people whacking cups, thermoses, etc from Shatabdi trains, leaving litter on the trains.  This is not to imply that all of us are thieves but the fact is remains that public property is treated shabbily in India. Protecting the routers will be another hassle for the government.

3) Free or paid: At the Delhi Airport, you get 20 minutes of free wifi access and beyond that you have to pay. When you connect you are also taken to a log-in page where you have to put in your details such as name, mobile number, etc.

In the case of wifi on trains, won't it be better that a cash-strapped railways should ask consumers to pay for the service rather than hand it out for free? From a security viewpoint, a log-in page is definitely a must. Or perhaps, while booking the ticket, users can pay extra for the Wifi and have a special code attached to their ticket which they can then use to access the Internet.

For instance in Queensland, Australia, there is a 20 MB data limit per session for those who access the Wifi in trains.  Connection is restored after 4 hours in case you exhaust it.  Game downloads, which hog a lot of bandwidth are blocked.

India will definitely have to look at such restrictions given how large our population is.

In a highly-connected world, Wifi on running trains sounds like a great proposal, but the truth is that it needs some concrete commitments in the form of infrastructure, logistics and security. Till then, this sounds good only on paper.