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Free WiFi to stay in Cape Town, despite Google Station exit

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Billed as a tool to make the Internet accessible to more people, Google Station will be brought to a close through 2020.

Google Station is the company’s global free public WiFi initiative first introduced in India in 2016. Since then, the search engine giant set up connectivity stations in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and SA.

In November, the City of Cape Town became the first South African recipient of Google Station, with the service made available across125 locations in areas such as Langa, Khayelitsha, Delft and Gugulethu, to name a few.

To bring its free public WiFi initiative to life in Cape Town, Google partnered with local Internet service provider (ISP), Think Wifi.

However, in re-evaluating its plans, Google has decided to withdraw the free everyday connectivity offering from all worldwide locations.

In a statement, a spokesperson says: “In line with Google’s mission, we started Google Station in India in 2016 to help connect people online. We’re humbled that our work has been able to help millions of people experience the power of the Internet for the first time.

“In South Africa, we partnered with Think WiFi. However, since we first started, the ecosystem has evolved and, combined with complex and varying technical requirements across countries and partners, we have been re-evaluating our plans and have decided to wind down Station through 2020.

“We are transferring our Station operations in South Africa to Think WiFi who will now carry out the project independently. We'll work with Think WiFi on a plan to transition the service to them, and continue to support them until the end of 2020. We remain committed to looking for ways to make the Internet more accessible to users around the world.”

Monetising public WiFi

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, believes Google Station has suffered the fate of most free and low-cost connectivity and discount services using advertising revenue as the business model.

“We've seen it many times over in South Africa, when advertisers have not been willing to support what they see as low-grade traffic that typically accrues to such services,” he states.

At the launch event last year, a Google official revealed that in SA, Telkom and Showmax had come on board as the first advertising partners for the initiative.

Last year, long-standing open access WiFi network provider, VAST Networks, went into liquidation, with pundits pointing to the public WiFi business model as being difficult to monetise, even with innovations in advertising portals.

Even though Google says its local partner Think WiFi will manage the project independently, Goldstuck says the move is unlikely to be sustainable, unless the business model changes.

“If Google, with its massive sales engine, couldn't make it work, it's hard to see Think WiFi succeeding with the same model. They would need to bring in the kind of public sector funding that Project Isizwe had in Tshwane. Alternatively, they would need to move to a more commercial model.”

Goldstuck says Google Station coming to a close is a big setback for free WiFi in the Western Cape, although it won't have a major impact on the connectivity environment in general, as the project was so new.

He explains: “The more significant impact will be the damage to trust in multinationals sorting out South African problems. Google Station rolled out in India in 2016 and made a major contribution to access in that country over the past four years.

“However, it had only just started providing access in this country before the plug was pulled, sending the message that giant organisations like Google are only interested in short-term marketing impact rather than long-term sustainability. That is probably not the intention, but it is the effect.”

Not the end

Despite the search engine’s pronouncement about winding down Google Station, Think WiFi says it is business as usual on the South African front of free WiFi stations.

The local ISP points out that SA has a completely different market to the rest of the world, as demand for connectivity and access to digital services for all is high, which is why the free WiFi initiative will continue.

“Google Station will simply change to Think Station, so free WiFi is here to stay. Think WiFi remains committed to provide fast, free WiFi to many underserved communities throughout South Africa,” it says in a statement.

“Think WiFi will rebrand the stations during the course of 2020, and all new stations rolling out will also carry the new branding. Think WiFi will share the new look of these station with the media within the coming months.”

Plans to extend the free Internet service to other parts of the country are also in the works, with Think WiFi revealing it plans to roll the WiFi initiative out to areas in the Eastern Cape and parts of Gauteng within the next couple of months.

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