Google to install free Wi-Fi at 400 railway stations in India

The initiative's goal is to provide Internet access to the nearly 1 billion people in India who aren't online.

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Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Google CEO Sundar Pichai, left, with India Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Google headquarters. Google

Google plans to install free Wi-Fi at hundreds of railway stations across India in an effort to deliver the Internet to hundreds of millions of people in that country who aren't online.

The web giant said Sunday it has partnered with Internet service provider RailTel and Indian Railways to provide high-speed public Wi-Fi in 400 train stations across India. The service will be free to start, with a long-term goal of making it self-sustainable, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a company blog describing the new initiative.

"This will rank it as the largest public Wi-Fi project in India, and among the largest in the world, by number of potential users," Pichai wrote. "We think this is an important part of making the Internet both accessible and useful for the more than 300 million Indians already online, and the nearly one billion more who are not."

The Mountain View, California-based company plans to have the service available in India's 100 busiest stations by the end of 2016.

The initiative was announced as Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, has been meeting with the heads of the tech industry's largest companies, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Modi is using this trip to connect with the large Indian community here, as well as to stir up interest in upgrading his country's technology infrastructure.

During a wide-ranging discussion Sunday morning with Zuckerberg at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters, Modi discussed larger efforts to bolster India's economy, particularly through the Internet. One key effort, he said, will be to link India's 600,000 villages through fiber optic networks, which he believes are the 21st century highways.

Those efforts will also help to attract foreign investment, he said. "There are many companies who don't even know where to invest their money, so I'm giving them the address: Here's the place," he said to applause.

Providing Internet access to underserved regions of the globe has been a long-term goal for many tech companies. Facebook's Internet.org initiative, which aims to provide free health, education, and economic information to people who have never had Internet access, has gone online to more than a billion people in 19 countries since its launch a year ago.

Google has floated several ideas for beaming Internet access to the underserved, including Project Loon, a sort of aerial network that would beam signals to ground-based antennas to offer connectivity to anyone with a smartphone. The company is reportedly planning to spend more than $1 billion to deploy hundreds of low-Earth orbit satellites to provide Internet access. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has also confirmed that his company is constructing and deploying a fleet of advanced satellites that will be used to deliver low-cost Internet access around the globe.