R.K. Bahuguna, chairman and managing director, RailTel

RailTel, established in 2000 under the Ministry of Railways (MoR), is one of the largest telecom infrastructure providers in the country, with its clientele including operators, banks, government agencies and educational institutions. Over the years, the company has expanded its telecom operations and diversified into segments such as data centre services, information and communications technology (ICT), and provision of broadband services to retail, small and medium enterprises. In the past one year, the company has also taken up public Wi-Fi deployment in a big way, thus playing a pivotal role in the country’s digital transformation. R.K. Bahuguna, chairman and managing director, RailTel, talks about the company’s recent initiatives, key challenges and future plans. Excerpts.…

How has RailTel’s journey in the telecom sector been so far? What are its key focus areas?

Today, RailTel is not limited to being a telecom infrastructure provider; it has evolved into a holistic ICT services company. Over the past few years, RailTel has exponentially increased its capabilities in different ICT verticals including system integration, network services, IT facility management and application support. We are working with many government organisations and departments to provide them technology support services, as well as operate and maintain complex network and IT systems. RailTel is also working on projects like the Railway Display Network (RDN), and CCTV surveillance and Wi-Fi at railway stations.

With a strong nation-wide presence, RailTel is focused on bringing in cutting-edge technology and offering innovative services, especially in rural and remote areas of the country, to help bridge the digital divide and ensure inclusion of the rural population in the digital economy.

What is the status of RailTel’s optic fibre cable (OFC) network roll-out?

RailTel is one of the largest telecom infrastructure providers in the country, owning a pan-Indian optic fibre network, with exclusive right-of-way access along railway tracks. The company’s nation-wide OFC network connects more than 4,500 railway stations. The density of RailTel’s fibre points of presence, with an average of 8-10 km, makes it closer to rural India. Further, RailTel has deployed a 25,000 route km dense wavelength division multiplexing-based network with Nx10G and Nx100G capacities. It has also installed 100G lambdas on core routes, making it one of the few operators with such a network in India. RailTel also has a high-capacity MPLS-IP network to provide data services to its customers.

What are the various projects that RailTel is involved in?

RailTel is one of the implementing agencies for the BharatNet project. Under Phase I, BharatNet aims to provide high speed broadband connectivity to 100,000 gram panchayats (GPs) in the country. RailTel has been allotted 8,768 GPs under this phase for providing broadband services in Gujarat, Daman & Diu, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Puducherry and the north-eastern states – Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Aru­nachal Pradesh, Manipur and Naga­land. In addition, RailTel is implementing a fibre networks in these six north-eastern states, through which over 12,000 km of fibre network will be made available for connecting the district headquarters to the blocks.

The MoR has also mandated RailTel to deploy Wi-Fi facility at over 400 A1, A and B category railway stations. Services have already been commissioned at 115 stations and will be ex­tended at the remaining stations in a phased manner by 2018. Google is the technology partner for the project.

RailTel is working on the RDN project at 2,000 railway stations under which over 100,000 connected displays will be provided. These displays will provide relevant and contextual information to passengers regarding their journey (train information, local station guide and tourist information) as well as communicate various social messages of the government. This will also help in generating non-fare revenues for the railways. The proof of concept is on­going at some stations such as Delhi, Gorakhpur, Varanasi, Jaipur and Gwalior.

What are the key challenges faced by the company? How do you plan to address these?

The dynamics of the telecom industry are changing rapidly and, with enhanced competition in the sector, RailTel like other operators is facing challenges with the business-as-usual approach. With a vision to move up the value chain, RailTel has started offering customers value-added ser­vi­ces such as data centre collocation, cloud and hosting services, telepresence and Aadhaar authentication.

Further, for diversification of its business­ areas, RailTel is taking up ICT projects that provide a comprehensive one-stop solution with networking, data centre, IT applications and facility management services. It is also offering end-to-end project deliverables with managed services. We are experiencing robust growth in this segment, especially in the government sector, as there is a huge requirement for such services in line with the Digital India initiative.

At a broader industry level, the telecom industry has become very competitive. Operators are finding it challenging to sustain their market shares because of the turbulence and vulnerability. RailTel is no exception. In the near future, we will definitely see more converged networks being built by operators. There is a fundamental shift towards providing more data-centric services, including voice and video, with higher throughputs.

How is RailTel contributing to the government’s Digital India initiative?

RailTel is working with different ministries and government agencies to enable the vision outlined under the Digital India initiative. RailTel has taken the lead in providing fast Wi-Fi for the use of passengers at 400 A1 and A category railway stations. Once implemented, this will be one of the largest public Wi-Fi projects in the world. RailTel is also working on a project (through the Universal Service Obligation Fund subsidy) to provide 200 rural railway stations with Wi-Fi and digital service centres to help the local population ex­plo­re the world of the internet. The centres will provide various e-government services as well as help the rural youth seek various online services to meet their employment and education needs.

RailTel is working with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to provide Wi-Fi services at heritage sites like the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar and the Rail Museum. It has been selected by the Ministry of Human Resource Develop­ment to provide Wi-Fi on the campuses of 38 major central universities to benefit the students. RailTel is an authorised service agency and authorised user agency of the Unique Identification Authority of India for Aadhaar authentication services.

What role can public Wi-Fi play in improving broadband adoption in the country?

Considering the comparatively lower per-MB cost of data through Wi-Fi technology, there is a need for better proliferation of Wi-Fi networks. Public Wi-Fi services are more affordable and are a flexible alternative for scaling up internet access, especially in rural areas. The government can in­cen­tivise the production of access/radio Wi-Fi equipment in India, enabling an appropriate ecosystem and regulatory frame­work for the roll-out of public Wi-Fi by operators. We are happy to note that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has initiated the work towards these industry aspirations. The need of the hour is to proliferate this infrastructure, especially in rural areas and Tier II and Tier III towns where 4G network coverage and fixed line internet are still not available. The easy availability and affordability of a variety of Wi-Fi-enabled handheld devices, mobile phones, tablets and laptops can help provide and increase internet access to a significant population.

What is your outlook for the public Wi-Fi space in India?

The public Wi-Fi segment has just taken off in the country. RailTel is one of the pioneers in this area. We are providing public Wi-Fi under the RailWire brand at railway stations. Similarly, many other telecom companies have also come up with their plans. Some of them are offering data off­loading services through Wi-Fi hotspots at public places to their existing customers. Telecom operators are reeling under significant spectrum acquisition and fibre backhaul costs, thereby operating under minimal margins. This is also contributing to their increasing focus on public Wi-Fi.

Some positive contribution has definitely come from the government’s focus on creating smart cities under its Digital India initiative. Now many state governments too are working towards providing Wi-Fi and broadband services to citizens, which is a welcome step. Content provi­ders are coming up with innovative ways of generating local content, which is having a positive impact on the increasing number of internet users. Local content will be the key for the proliferation of the internet among the masses and in unconnected areas. In the short term, the “social dividend” accruing from such activity is more important. Once a certain threshold is achieved by the operator, “financial dividends” will follow.

What are RailTel’s future plans?

We will continue to work towards bridging the digital divide through IT and value-added services. Moreover, we will support Indian Railways in its modernisation and business transformation through our cloud, big data and mission-critical communication offerings. We also plan to tap the overseas market opportunity in ICT and railway telecom infrastructure creation. As mentioned earlier, RailTel is focusing on ICT project implementation for its customers. We have created a subsidiary, RailTel Enterprises Limited, to take up such projects in a dedicated manner.