The final error of Wi-Fi on trains lies in the ‘free’ pudding. Is this a true viable project, or an attempt to show that India has arrived on the global stage?

It has been nearly a week since both the Railway and Union Budgets have been out – with the general verdict being that while not disruptive, both Budgets were the best that could be done under trying circumstances.

Both Budgets, however, were also very cleverly branded. Two images came through amidst the haze of numbers and book-balancing. One was that of modernization – a country trying to show that its rail system had indeed arrived on the global stage. The other was that of gender and social development – a country trying to do damage-control after a rape incident that reminded the world that India had not yet joined the 21st century.

There are, however, a few items from the Budgets that appear contradictory— which is perfectly natural when one considers that painting a veneer of modernization doesn’t work well when the canvas doesn’t stand on modern foundations.

Let us take the first – free public Wifi on select trains. I haven’t heard a more inane idea in quite a long time. The Railways is likely to suffer Rs. 24,600 crore loss this fiscal year, slightly up from the Rs. 22,500 crore.

A large part of these losses are to be accepted – as most public mass transit systems are not wholly profitable. Nevertheless, this near-bankruptcy is due to rising input costs such as fuel and more importantly, a near stagnant revenue stream. Implementing a large-scale public Wi-Fi network is quite a feat, even with Railtel in place, and will be an expensive public project – draining further away the Railways’ financial resources.

For who do we toil?

And for who exactly is this Wi-Fi being implemented? Some public systems of internet access have served as an economic booster – allowing more work to be done while commuting – thus raising the overall productivity of the workforce. But India has no high-speed trains, which the business-segment of the population often uses as a mode of transport. Most professionals use airplanes, as most trains are often unreliable and slow. (Another point to be interjected at this stage would be that the rapid proliferation of USB (Wi-Fi) dongles has rendered public Wi-Fi unnecessary for the business segment)

However, even if we take for granted that a large section of the working population use trains as a form of active commutation as they hop from one city to the other for business, we come to our next stumbling block. Even the six-hour journey between Chennai and Bangalore, which could conceivably have a travelling segment that would benefit from Wi-Fi for their working purposes, passes through often barren land.

In fact, the first thing one notices when making that journey is the lack of mobile phone connectivity—very often a few hours after pulling out from Chennai’s Central Station, the connection goes kaput. Even with the significant capacity in terms of bandwidth that Railtel brings to the table – this project will require tremendous infrastructural backing in the form of industry-grade routers to be even remotely viable. It will take years, even decades perhaps, to bring a Wi-Fi system that is worth browsing on. And this is if there are no ‘Router-Gates, or cable fibre scams that pop up along the way. Surely there are better ways to spend public money - this is an intiative which almost has no returns.

Why do something for free?

The final proof lies in the ‘free’ pudding however. Why miss up such an excellent opportunity to provide an additional revenue stream to the gasping Railways? It would be quite easy to provide a tiered plan (Rs. 50 per hour of Wi-Fi usage or Rs. 150 for the whole train journey) that passengers could have the option of purchasing.

It could even be integrated into the IRCTC service – as one enters ones credit card details to buy the ticket— they could have the option of purchasing Wi-Fi connectivity for the journey for a nominal sum. It could go towards paying for the inevitable maintenance costs that a project of this size would require. Why squander such a chance by making it free? Because ‘free’ is glamorous, it sounds better.

This is what truly makes it hard to believe the genuineness of the Government in this project. Free Wi-Fi on select trains is an indicator that India has finally made it to the global stage. It is an excellent tourism selling point. Perhaps it even makes us feel civilized?

The bottom line, however, is that it is a luxury that cannot be supported financially. It is also a luxury that perhaps helps us forget (or makes us feel better?) that the waste disposal system on the Indian Railways is something my five-year old sister could have designed.

The last point on why the seriousness of this move must be doubted is the Union Budget decision to hike the duty on the sale of mobile phones that are worth more than Rs. 2,000. This is also the inherent contradiction mentioned above. Any smartphone that has limited browsing capabilities is clearly worth more than Rs. 4,000. If the Government really wishes for its citizens to jump on the Internet through free public Wi-Fi on trains, why limit the ability to purchase Internet-accessing devices?