Revolutionising Digital India by offering innovative solutions to real-world problems

Rohit P

IMAGINE a world where your home internet connection always works. A world where you don’t face network issues, irrespective of where you are and even in bad or no network zone. A world where you can take your apps and their seamless experience for granted – railway, metro, hotels, malls, flight, villages, airports – literally wherever you are. A world where the next billion users from remote parts around the world can start accessing the Apps that we use, without ever purchasing an internet connection! Sounds like a dream, right? But that’s exactly what SugarBox can enable – affordable & reliable digital access to everyone, everywhere.

We saw Internet bandwidth as that bottleneck – that licensed, limited and expensive resource that seemed to be the root cause of all problems! And so, we tried to imagine a way in which we could reduce the amount of internet bandwidth required! This led us to build the world’s first hyperlocal CDN.

For example, if OTT platforms existed three decades back and you were streaming a movie at your office in Bombay, the file would be streamed to you from a server in the US. Then a CDN was invented in the late 90s and today, that file magically gets stored (or cached) and streamed from a server in Bombay (and most often in a server located in the area you are in within Bombay). SugarBox magically makes the file available on a server installed in your office building so that it can be streamed over a Local Area Network! 

  • A Content distribution network (CDN) is a network of servers spread across areas that cache relevant data across internet services based on what gets consumed in each area. 
  • A traditional CDN installs servers in datacenters at an area/city/region level based on user density and demand. On the other hand, a hyperlocal CDN goes a little further and installs servers at places where consumers are present and where services are used (Transport, Rural & Public Areas, Residential & Commercial complexes, Retail & Hospitality, and many more). A traditional CDN server requires a user to have an internet connection to access the data from the server. 
  • A hyperlocal CDN server can deliver data over a local area network, without requiring an internet connection. This enables digital services to work seamlessly, even in areas with bad or no network and empowers users without an active internet connection to use Apps.

SugarBox started at the back of my experience running an OTT service and the problems that people faced with respect to data reliability and affordability. For a brief period, Jio solved that problem. But we inherently knew that being a global issue, something needed to fundamentally change to solve this in an economically viable and sustainable way.

We built a prototype very similar to what was used on-board a Jet Airways’ aircraft in 2016 and carried out a pilot project at Mumbai’s Goregaon railway station. The statistics were beyond imagination with people consuming 21 GB data per week and some users ran through all 200 movies on the platform within 15 days! This is when we knew we were onto something exciting.

A hyperlocal CDN server enables digital services to work seamlessly even in areas with bad or no network and empowers users without an active internet connection to use Apps. The technology, however, is not the only essential edge in this context. what matters more is what it enables:

SugarBox aims to change the revenue model that enables internet infrastructure providers to start earning via user consumption without the user having to pay for it. The model that SugarBox operates in is very similar to that of any CDN. They invest in the Cloud and Edge infrastructure that SugarBox installs. In addition to this, they bear the operating expenses of this infrastructure, along with other associated charges like lease, utility, etc. at certain POIs.

Once installed and live, SugarBox monetizes via the user consumption of all apps supported by the SugarBox CDN. Each SugarBox installation is modelled to be Unit Ex positive, not just for them as a company, but the entire ecosystem. The margins are substantially higher than the traditional CDN business. SugarBox is in the phase of partnering with various OTT, Gaming, E-commerce, FinTech, and EdTech platforms. This forms the bedrock of a win-win relationship between the user, app partners, and SugarBox. 

We went on a focused approach to close long-term exclusive Network Partnerships and today, boast about partners like Hyderabad Metro, Chennai Metro, Central Railways and Navi Mumbai Municipal Buses, amongst others. In January of 2020, we also got awarded a tender for the Indian Railways to install all operating trains and to power 5,400 Wi-Fi enabled stations with the technology. Once deployed, this will take our cumulative network reach to well over 25 mn unique users a day and over 300 mn monthly unique. At the back of this, Zee announced an additional investment of INR 5,220 mn in SugarBox in April 2020. SugarBox is still at a pre-revenue stage and is set to launch commercial services post-Covid.

SugarBox is a subsidiary of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. (ZEEL), in which it acquired an 80% equity stake for INR 75 crores in April 2017. In April 2020, ZEE committed to investing an additional INR 522 crores in SugarBox over the next 2 to 3 years. After the acquisition, their focus was to make Zee5 work using the platform, rather than creating a separate platform with a limited use case (Our network is limited only to certain places).

Ripunjay Bararia is the co-founder and CTO of SugarBox. With over 25 years of experience in the Information Technology and Services sector, he is responsible for the overall technology and infrastructure at SugarBox. Ripunjay’s career spans across two decades and is dotted with several milestones along the way. Having gained profound knowledge over the years, he has helped build many ‘firsts’ in India.

We are trying to solve a problem which is very large and complex, and in many ways is a catch-22. Apps will integrate with SugarBox only when we have a critical mass of reach and we will be able to offer value to the consumer only once we have the Apps supported by the CDN!

Being a first-of-its-kind platform, there was no precedence for what we were doing, which obviously led to a plethora of challenges. First, a chunk of use cases for which we were building our CDN had never been addressed before. Then, we struggled with ecosystem-level challenges including Android fragmentation and OS limitations. After that, we ran into hardware failures and peripheral hardware issues in production environments and many more. But we overcame them by thinking out of the box, collaboration and finally, just grit and determination. 

With the current investment, SugarBox will commence commercial services and scale up the network across public transport, revolutionizing the digital experience for over 300 mn monthly unique users over the next 2 to 3 years. 

The short-term objective is to unlock over 2.5 bn hours of digital consumption monthly for consumers in a near captive environment, where access is otherwise limited due to patchy connectivity. The long-term goal is to optimize the way data is transacted on the internet globally, making the internet over 30% cheaper and 200% faster.

Today, SugarBox is present across pilot deployments in 9 cities and 250 Places of Interest (POIs). They are offering services to various POIs in cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai. The company is looking to spanning its network to Delhi, Kolkata, and other cities in the next 2 years. SugarBox aims to cover PAN India Urban & Rural by the end of 2025.

There are four key growth pillars for SugarBox in the next 2 to 3 years:

  1. Scale up the Public transport outreach in India – This includes full-scale implementation in Indian Railways, along with deployment across other key Metro networks and bus networks in the country. This growth bucket also includes a foray into Avionics to disrupt the In-flight connectivity industry as a whole. The plan is to reach 30 mn users daily and 300 mn monthly unique users through this network segment.
  2. Scale up the Rural & Urban Public Wi-Fi outreach in India – This includes exponentially scaling up our rural and village level pilots in partnership with other Internet infrastructure and Internet service providers, along with paving the way for sustainable Public Wi-Fi deployments in Urban and semi-Urban. The plan is to deploy 100,000 POIs over the next 3 years and provide digital access to 100 mn Indians through this segment.
  3. SugarBox at Home, Office & other B2B POIs – This includes a B2B and a B2C foray to improve the state of the internet in India, making home and enterprise networks twice as fast and significantly improve the affordability and reliability of internet connections in the country. The plan is to power 20 mn households and enterprises through this segment over the next three to four years.
  4. International expansion – SugarBox is actively working on replicating the model globally, with a two-prong strategy. The company will be looking at entering a few critical markets directly by setting up international operations and forging partnerships with local players for faster penetration across other international geographies.

By Rohit Paranjpe, Co-Founder and CEO, SugarBox

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