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Most of India Still Isn’t Online—Here’s Google’s Plan to Fix That

Google is testing new initiatives to boost Internet access in India that could prove useful everywhere.
September 27, 2016

Google has made a series of announcements that make one thing very clear: it plans to take India’s Internet by storm.

The company is no stranger to working in India, with its railroad station Wi-Fi project already proving to be a notable success. But today it announced a series of new products and projects squarely aimed at the Indian market, signaling its intent to tap a market of 1.25 billion people where only 200 or 250 million are currently online.

Most notable among the announcements is a new YouTube app called Go, specially designed for users in developing countries with poor—and expensive—data connections. While the app does allow video downloads for later viewing, that’s not its real party trick. Instead, as Wired explains, it allows people to share video with others in their community using ad-hoc wireless networks, so users don’t have to chew through cellular data allowances. That feature was inspired by trips to India, where Google saw people sharing videos not as links, but via SD cards that were passed around.

In partnership with Google, Indian Railways' RailTel offers free Wi-Fi Internet service in Mumbai's central railway station. The service is due to be rolled out in 100 of the country's busiest stations by the end of 2016.

The app isn’t the only data-saving scheme Google’s been working on. It’s also announced that Chrome for Android will now provide a Data Saver mode that will allow it to more aggressively compress audio and video, as well as downloading a specially streamlined version of Web pages. It’s claimed that MP4 files can be streamed using 67 percent less data, while a Web page ends up just 10 percent of the size. There will also be the option to download Web pages for later viewing. Clearly, there will be a loss of quality—but that probably doesn’t matter too much when you’re using a slow 2G connection.

Elsewhere, Google has also announced that it’s expanding its rail station Wi-Fi initiative, known as Google Station, into other locations such as cafes and malls, with plans to take it to other countries. And the company will be adding Hindi support to its new AI-powered Assistant.

You may, of course, be reading this and thinking that these features seem useful anywhere, and not just in underconnected countries like India. Google would agree. Writing in the Economic Times, Google CEO Sundar Pichai explains that the company is learning a lot from its work in the country, finding that many of its solutions to connectivity issues—such as Maps Offline—are also popular in the West. “In an increasingly mobile-first world, India gives us early insights into the future of the Internet,” he explains.

But make no mistake: India is a huge opportunity for Google. If Google can be the one to provide the services that new Internet users adopt, it will be able to recoup its investments using its favorite trick of all—advertising. Facebook has already tried as much in India with its Free Basics scheme, but that was banned because it breached the principles of net neutrality.

Google, though, looks set to do everything it can to succeed.

(Read more: Wired, Economic Times, The Verge, “Facebook and Google Are Racing to Supply India with Internet Access,” “How Assistant Could End Up Eating Google’s Lunch,” “India’s Blow Against Facebook Sets Up a Grand Experiment in Net Neutrality”)

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