Google’s free wifi program stopped making economic sense

Google Station was a global program that started in India in 2015.
Google Station was a global program that started in India in 2015.
Image: AP/Rajanish Kakade
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Google announced today plans to shut down its Google Station program. Launched in 2015, the program was intended to increase access to the internet for those that might not have been able to afford it, by working with local governments and companies to create hotspots in heavily trafficked areas. The program was launched in India in 2015, and later expanded to Indonesia and Nigeria, among other countries.

According to Google, the program is going away for two main reasons.

One, mobile data is now so cheap in many countries that free hotspots are not all that needed. In India, the price of mobile data plummeted from Rs269 ($3.77) in 2014 to less than Rs.12 by 2018 (pdf), a decrease of more than 95%. India now has the cheapest mobile data in the world, according to data from the price tracking company Cable. Largely for that reason, the number of wireless data subscribers jumped from about 280 million in 2012 to almost 580 million in 2018. Although India’s price decline has been particularly steep, mobile data prices have been falling across most low-income countries, according to data collected by the Alliance for Affordable Internet.

Second, Google had a difficult time making money from the Google Station program. “[T]he challenge of varying technical requirements and infrastructure among our partners across countries has also made it difficult for Station to scale and be sustainable,” Google explained in its statement. Manish Singh at TechCrunch points out that Google had tried showing advertisements to users when they signed in through Google Station, but that appears not to have generated enough revenue.

The announcement comes as a bit of a surprise, since Google Station launched in South Africa just three months ago. The expansion to South Africa included 125 locations. Google will pass on operations there to its partner, Think Wifi, according to Business Insider.