Technology Person of interest

Meet the man solving India’s digital access problem, one station at a time


Image Credit: Yasir Iqbal

Name: Gulzar Azad

Role: Country head—connectivity, Google India

Age: 40

Who he is: Azad has been with Google for almost a decade now. Before that, he worked in companies such as Agilent Technologies and Idea Cellular.

Logging in: Azad is the man behind Google and RailTel’s (the telecommunications arm of the Indian Railways) ambitious project of providing high-speed Wi-Fi at railways stations across the country. The project’s first phase aims to cover 100 stations by the end of the year. Since its launch in January this year, close to 3 million people have used this service at 21 stations, including Mumbai Central, Bhubaneswar, Pune, Bhopal, Ranchi, Patna, and Ernakulam.

How it began: About four years ago, Azad started looking into the problem of access to Internet. In India, there are only around 400 million Internet users, which means that close to a billion people don’t access the World Wide Web. He says there has been a huge gap on the supply side, along with the problem of driving demand and experience.

Fourth time lucky:  Azad worked on three variations of the project, all of which were rejected. His bosses at Google and the folks at the railway ministry wanted him to launch with a bang, whereas he was hoping for a much quieter two-station pilot. His fourth attempt was a plan to provide Wi-Fi at hundreds of stations in as little time as possible—and this time he got the green signal. He was told that it's like boiling the ocean. Would he want to give it a go? He would at least try, he replied.

Gulzar Azad is the man behind Google and RailTel’s ambitious project of providing high-speed Wi-Fi at railways stations across the country.

No small task: The project isn’t as simple as setting up a public hotspot. Azad compares it to building Wi-Fi for small townships, given the sheer volume of people passing through stations every day. What helped in making this gargantuan task a reality was the one asset the railways had in abundance—fibre. “The stations became this place for us where there was fibre [45,000 km connecting more than 4,000 cities and towns across the country], with reliable power, and there was almost the entire population of the country that we could think about going through the stations in a matter of four to five years,” says Azad.

All about bandwidth:  Even though many consumers have moved on to 3G or even 4G, a huge chunk still use 2G connections. And most of them consume just about a gig or less, says Azad. The question is how to get them to use say 10 times more? “It is not enough to just bring people online, systems have to be designed assuming that in the next few years India will need a huge bandwidth-driven Internet.” 

Getting `em hooked: Azad is confident that once users get a taste of high-speed Internet at the railway stations, they would want such speeds elsewhere.