Google Shuts Down Its Free Public Internet Service In Africa Citing Failed Business Model

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Written by Peter Pedroncelli
free public internet
Google said that it plans to shut down its free public internet service across all locations where it currently exists by the end of 2020. Nitin Gajria, Google Africa director, announces the Google Station initiative at a Google South Africa event in Johannesburg on Nov. 7, 2019. Image supplied by Google

After launching a free public internet service in South Africa and Nigeria, Google has decided to shut down the program worldwide.

The public internet service known as Google Station is funded and organized by search engine giant Google, which collaborates with local internet service providers to provide free internet for people in underserved areas.

Google said that it plans to shut it down across all locations where it currently exists by the end of 2020 — beginning with India, according to a blog post.

In 2013, Facebook launched an initiative to provide free internet access to millions of people around the world, including Africa. The initiative, which became known as Free Basics, was controversial because Facebook provided free access to its own platform and a selection of other websites that it deemed suitable.

By 2016, half the countries in Africa — a combined population of 635 million — had access to its free internet service but Facebook continued to face criticism.

Internet freedom advocates and critics said it was a thinly veiled marketing ploy that could do more damage than good because access is limited to what Facebook wants these users to see.

Free Basics continues to exist but the program has been ended in countries including Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Congo, Anguilla, Saint Lucia and El Salvador due to issues with mobile operators.

While Facebook pushed the initiative as a philanthropic effort, Google has been clearer about its profit-motives.

Citing a failed business model and poor returns on its investments, Google argues that data has become more affordable and internet access has improved since it initiated the program in 2015. 

Its goal at the time was to help more individuals get online, and the service is not as necessary as it once was. 

“As we look to the next phase of enabling access, it’s clear that since we started five years ago, getting online has become much simpler and cheaper. Mobile data plans have become more affordable and mobile connectivity is improving globally,” Google said in the statement.

“In addition to this changed context, the challenge of varying technical requirements and infrastructure among our partners across countries has also made it difficult for Station to scale and be sustainable, especially for our partners.”

Google tried enabled advertisements that users saw when signing in to the Google Station service, but that appears not to have generated enough revenue, according to TechCrunch.

In November 2019, South Africa was the sixth country to launch Google Station, planning internet access in 125 public spaces. 

Google launched the service in Nigeria in July 2018, collaborating with Nigerian internet providers to launch free internet in 200 public spaces across five cities.

Google Station, which is designed for countries with rapidly growing populations, will also be shut down in India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Thailand.

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Silicon Valley-based Google claims to have a mission to provide internet access to as many people as possible but internet penetration in Nigeria and South Africa is still below the global average (59 percent)

Around 54 percent of South Africans have access to the internet while 47.1 percent of Nigerians have internet access.

It is unclear whether local service providers in Nigeria will take over from Google in providing the free internet. In South Africa, Google said it will pass on operations to its partner firm, Think Wifi.