The structure of pervasive public wifi in parts of our country may be taking shape and Google is caching in. The Google Station platform started off (as the name indicates) with the intent of wiring up all stations in India to Wifi. Today, it’s fast becoming the platform to wire-up public spaces in our cities to wifi, starting with Pune.
A contract of Rs. 150 crore has been awarded to Google, in partnership with IBM, Larsen & Turbo (L&T) and RailTel, by the Pune Smart City Development Corporation Limited (PSCSCL) to deploy its Google Station platform across the city.
What’s interesting is that the city is looking at this as a monetisable platform-a role Google will help with. Pune Municipal Commissioner Kunal Kumar told the Economic Times that 15-20% of the revenue generated (by Google) through the city-wide Wi-Fi network will be shared with the authorities.
It appears then that free, pervasive wi-fi may then just be a dream, unless Google Station works with public spaces (malls, retailers, institutions, etc.) to help subsidise wifi access to consumers.
An important question to ask here is whether the government is looking at access to internet as a basic necessity or a paid luxury. Either way, there are pros and cons. A basic necessity approach may end up creating an argument for choking speed or selective access to content / services (as the FreeBasics campaign from Facebook sought to do).
Access to internet is a critical infrastructure to own for companies whose services and products depends on pervasive internet access. Facebook has already started on a different solution called “Express Wifi” to provide internet access in public and private spaces.
But it looks like Google Station may start becoming the de-facto platform to enable wifi hotspots across the country beyond the railway stations (Google Station already powers about 100 railway stations across the country). There are advantages to having a common backbone the primary one being that customers can connect across hotspots seamlessly (without the need for separate authentication across different points).
However as individual city and state governments begin to partner with service providers, it would be important to keep a beady eye on whether the access to net remains both neutral and affordable.