As the world moves towards remote working and hybrid forms of communications, it is becoming more important to have an internet connection that works without any network issues. Imagine having your favourite ecommerce, OTT, and food delivery apps work anywhere and anytime.
This has been the aim of Rohit Paranjpe, which led him to start SugarBox in Mumbai in 2016. It is a hyperlocal data delivery and discovery startup or content delivery network (CDN) that enables users to seamlessly access apps in places with bad or no network, and even empowers users without an internet connection to use apps.
It does this by installing data caching servers at key POIs (Places of Interest) with a critical mass of users, and where there is a propensity for using digital services. This includes public transport, intercity buses, slums and rural areas, hotels and co-living spaces, malls, hospitals, restaurants and bars, residential and corporate buildings, etc. The user can avail the server over a local Wi-Fi network.
Currently, SugarBox is present at over 200 POIs across 9 cities.
How SugarBox works
“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 with data connectivity being a global issue, something needed to fundamentally change to solve this in an economically viable and sustainable way,” Rohit tells YourStory.
The team built a prototype similar to one that was used onboard 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 consumed all 200 movies on the platform within 15 days! This is when we knew we were onto something exciting,” says Rohit.
He explains they saw internet bandwidth as a licensed, limited, and expensive resource that seemed to be the root cause of all problems. So the team tried to find a way they could reduce the internet bandwidth, without reducing usage.
“Simply put, if Netflix existed three decades back and you were streaming a movie at your office in Mumbai, 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 Mumbai (and most often, in a server located in your nearby area),” explains Rohit
SugarBox makes the file available on a server installed in your office building so that it can be streamed using the Local Area Network in your office. The same can be applied to any user in a residential building, hotel, mall, aircraft, train, bus, etc.
The team had to first address a number of use cases that had never been done before. Then, the team 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. It will sound like a cliché, but we overcame them by thinking out of the box, collaborating and finally, by just using our grit and determination. It also took a special group of individuals coming together to solve these complex problems,” says Rohit.
Internet at all times
Based on user demand, SugarBox Edge caches relevant data for apps and services supported by the CDN, which is then delivered to the user over a Local Area Network. As a result, the user can access these apps and services at super-fast speed and without any applicable data charges.
“For apps and services that aren’t supported by SugarBox, the user continues to use their existing internet connection or mobile data connection. Thus, the SugarBox CDN can free-up substantial bandwidth on the existing internet connection, making the overall internet access faster and cheaper for the user,” says Rohit.
If SugarBox Edge loses the connectivity to the CDN (bad network areas/ areas with no network), the user can still access the apps and services supported by the SugarBox CDN for which data is already available at SugarBox Edge.
This is made possible by using Edge computing to replicate the functionalities that the app/service needs from the cloud. As a result, SugarBox is also able to deliver personalised APIs, decryption keys, payment processing, ad delivery, etc for the apps to function, in addition to delivering the app data.
Similarly, for a user who doesn’t have an active internet connection, SugarBox enables the user to start using all apps supported by the CDN without any data charges or purchasing an internet pack, as the access to SugarBox is free. The user will have to pay in an event that they want to transact on a particular app or access a premium service.
The team and investment
Rohit was introduced to Ripunjay Bararia, through a mutual friend. Ripunjay is the Co-founder and CTO at SugarBox. He is an expert in the field and has had decades of experience working in the IT, internet, and telecommunications domains. The current team is of 115 people.
The core team comprises Ashish Kulshresth, Business Head and Pritesh Malde, Product Head – who has a proven track record of ideating, conceptualising, and scaling products from scratch in B2B and B2C domains.
Ishan Choudhury, Heads Strategy and Growth; Rupsa Sinha, Brand Head; Vishwanath Kulkarni, Head of Network Rollout; and Ayush Sinha, Head HR.
SugarBox is a subsidiary of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL), in which it acquired an 80 percent equity stake for Rs 75 crore in April 2017. In April 2020, ZEE committed to investing an additional Rs 522 crore in SugarBox over the next two to three years.
Market and the future
With more people jumping on the digital bandwagon – with close to 500 million internet users, CDN companies are fast growing in India. A report by Zion Market Research states that the global market is expected to grow with an aggregate CAGR of 12.5 percent between 2019 and 2025. Some of the key players are Cloudfare, Fastly, StackPath, and Velocix to name a few.
The SugarBox team is looking to scale up public transport outreach across India, including full-scale implementation in Indian Railways, along with deployment across other key metro networks and bus networks in the country; scaling up rural and urban public wifi outreach, SugarBox at the home, office and other B2B POIs, and 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,” says Rohit.