Google ends its free Wi-Fi program Station

Google said on Monday that it is winding down Google Station, a program that rolled out free Wi-Fi in more than 400 railway stations in India and "thousands" of other public places in several additional pockets of the world. The company worked with a number of partners on the program.

Caesar Sengupta, VP of Payments and Next Billion Users at Google, said the program, launched in 2015, helped millions of users surf the internet -- a first for many -- and not worry about the amount of data they consumed. But as mobile data prices got cheaper in many markets, including India, Google Station was no longer as necessary, he said. The company plans to discontinue the program this year.

Additionally, it had become difficult for Google to find a sustainable business model to scale the program, the company said, which in recent years expanded Station to Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, Nigeria, Philippines, Brazil and Vietnam. The company launched the program in South Africa just three months ago.

Over the years, Google also explored ways to monetize the Google Station program. The company, for instance, began showing an ad when a user signed in to connect to its internet service.

In an interview early last year, Gulzar Azad, who spearheads connectivity efforts for Google in India, told me that the company was thinking about ways to scale Station to more markets, but noted that as far as deployment at Indian railway stations was concerned, Google had reached its goal (to serve 400 railway stations).

A year after Google announced its efforts to offer free Wi-Fi in India, the country's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, launched his telecom network Reliance Jio. Jio offered customers the bulk of 4G data at no charge for an extended period of time, forcing other telecom operators to slash their tariffs.

The move ushered millions of Indians to the internet, access to which was too expensive for many, for the first time. In a separate interview, I asked Azad if Google Station's relevance had somewhat diminished because of Reliance Jio's entrance. At the time, he said plenty of people were still signing up for the company's program and that they were continuing to show a great appetite to consume voluminous data.

Google works with a number of companies to enable free Wi-Fi for users in public places. In India, for instance, Google has built the software stack, while RailTel, a state-owned telecom infrastructure provider, delivers the free internet line.

RailTel delivers Wi-Fi in more than 5,600 railway stations, and over the years has developed the capability to offer its own software stack. "We are working with our partners to transition existing sites so they can remain useful resources for the community," said Sengupta.

TechCrunch has reached out to a RailTel spokesperson to check whether the company plans to keep offering Wi-Fi in the 400 odd railway stations where it worked with Google. Update: RailTel will continue to service free Wi-Fi in all those railway stations. "We sincerely value the support we received from Google in this journey," the spokesperson added.

"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. And when we evaluate where we can truly make an impact in the future, we see greater need and bigger opportunities in making building products and features tailored to work better for the next billion user markets," said Sengupta.

Google isn’t the only tech giant that has worked to offer free internet to users in developing markets. Facebook’s successor to — the program that was banned in India for violating net neutrality regulations — launched in the country in 2017.