Profitable and sustainable public Wi-Fi in Africa that caters to the “mass market" has been sought after as a model ever since the first free Wi-Fi network’s emerged almost ten years ago.
In the interim there have been a number of business models tested and deployed to cater to this market, and that include revenue elements such as advertising, additional data sales, along with value added services linked to home or business connectivity packages.
Some WISP networks have expanded from their home and commercial product offerings, to free and freemium public offerings in the lower income markets, and transit hubs, with mixed success with their public offering predominantly being used to promote their core offerings.
Retailers and landlords have also climbed onto the bandwagon hoping to cash in on user behaviour data by providing public access in their malls and stores, predominantly targeting the upper income levels, again with limited short term success.
Interestingly the demand for broadband Internet access is huge across all income levels and socio economic strata in Africa, and needs to be filled; thus its hard to understand, certainly without too much inspection, why public Wi-Fi is so challenging.
Its very expensive to build and operate any telco network but even so both privately and publicly funded networks have emerged and continue to do so; these networks look viable at the outset due to substantial initial capitalisation, and they service the public good (and demand); but they too lack commercial sustainability unless they are able to get enough users that are prepared to pay for the service. They are also localised and with no real roaming solution in place, users tend to default to mobile network utilisation where no networks exist.
This brings us to the heart of the challenge in Africa, which lies in the inability, and unwillingness of the majority African users to pay for additional data over and above what they already pay for their mobile data; this has the additional benefit of being available almost everywhere, even though the prohibitive costs are well documented.
The prevailing belief, other than economic limitation, is that “free” Wi-Fi is has created the expectation that it is a right, and should be widely available as a public service. It is true that people seek these networks out, witness hundreds of users catching the edge of municipal networks in places like Soweto and Mitchells Plain. But then these same users pay for expensive mobile data…so a lot has to do with the perception of the value of “free” Wi-Fi.
Aside from the viability and commercial limitations of public Wi-Fi networks, the technical elements are complex; from hardware to radio planning, licensing, to deployment and management, public Wi-Fi is complex.
So the approach to profitability is not simple and requires a multiple revenue approach; this is quite daunting to most operators as it means sourcing and testing, and then implementing multiple platforms and systems and the management thereof, making the UX more complex and potentially driving up costs without the uptake. And this is outside of the commercial modelling, and operations.
So many networks stick to their knitting, and remain within the traditional commercial model, but in doing so, leave money on the table as they are skittish to invest in servicing the mass market as they don't have workable revenue models.
In looking at these challenges there is certainly no “silver bullet”, so mapping an ideal solution became interesting for Connect Earth; we envisioned that It would have to ticks a few boxes:
- Have a single platform for multiple engagements and multiple revenue drivers, and that is flexible and easily integrates into existing systems;
- Is a single system that includes captive portal, advert engine, content portal and engagement capacity for vouchers, research, competitions and games;
- A hardware platform that is integrated and well tested within the software platform;
- Relevant payment gateways and abilities to integrate into third party wallets and payment platforms;
- Commercial modelling and relationships that leverage the abilities and functionality of the platform;
- Can be deployed anywhere in Africa, fully pre provisioned and white labelled for instant activation;
- Can use all forms of backhaul; mobile networks, fibre, microwave and even satellite;
- Can be scaled and used for eventing, transit, and fixed locations;
- Can be monitored and updated remotely.
In our activities there are a few solutions we have come across, and even contributed to, that come very close to ticking all the boxes above; in fact a few that come really close, but these lacked one critical element; the commercial knowledge, and structure to maximise the multiple revenue driver opportunities.
This aspect is something Connect Earth has focussed on for the past two years building partnerships, and incubating projects involving brands, advertising and the relevant and associated agencies, as well as content creation, licensing, and distribution, and payment, and voucher gateways and e-wallets. These are now a core part of our Professional Services business unit.
We have also taken a client's solution, and packaged it so that most of the boxes above are ticked; thus along with our commercial skill set we are well placed to cater to the needs of existing and new public or blended (public, home and commercial) networks in Africa.