Growth Tech still bullish on free Wi-Fi

Growth Tech still bullish on free Wi-Fi

Thursday, October 29, 2020

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TECHNOLOGY company Growth Tech Ltd has been forced to rethink its strategy after COVID-19 slashed, by up to 40 per cent, the number of Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) riders that use its free Wi-Fi service.

Now, according to new General Manager Robert Whitehorne, the focus going forward will be on pumping “more capital investment” into providing Wi-Fi in public spaces and institutions to meet “a very high unfulfilled demand”.

While he declined to say how much the company will spend, Whitehorne said the investment was a signal of its confidence that there is enough untapped demand for future growth.

The plan, two years ago, was to have advertisers foot the bill for Internet service in exchange for getting their products before a captive audience of roughly 250,000 passengers a day. But JUTC ridership has fallen as the country adjusts to living with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, there has been a decline in revenue and a decline in profitability. But we have not only been able to keep ourself afloat, we have also been able to pump more capital in the business to go into some other areas where the demand has shifted,” Whitehorne told the Jamaica Observer.

“For the free Wi-Fi service, our strategy at the moment is to expand the service in areas where there is greatest demand. Because we have this track record of experience in how to do this 'free Wi-Fi' service, we can easily deploy it to public spaces and also to schools and other areas that need it,” added Whitehorne.

With COVID-19 forcing schools to take classes online, the availability of Internet service has taken on even greater importance and several mainly rural communities are under served.

According to Whitehorne, Growth Tech has identified about 900 institutions in need and the company, with its partners, is looking at how to get Internet from service providers to rural communities within two kilometres of the service node. This would be done either by running cable, using wireless, or a combination of both.

“We're in planning, design and feasibility assessment phase,” said Whitehorne who estimated that the capital expenditure to get the cabling in place to reach far-flung locations would run “tens of millions of US dollars”.

Mindful of the fact that any project undertaken has to create value for stakeholders, he said, one option could see Growth Tech offering a managed service where it puts in all the infrastructure and the Government then pays it an annual fee so that it can recoup its capital outlay. Another approach could be that some other private institution could sponsor the project, or the Government could seek international aid.

Bridging the gap between those who have access to Wi-Fi and those who do not remains an integral part of the company's strategy. So much so that, since October, it has been ready to provide maintenance support to Wi-Fi infrastructure installed by others.

The Government has been on a drive to offer free Wi-Fi at key locations across the island, a move that Whitehorne says is commendable. He stressed, though, that keeping the service up and running is vital.

“The learning that we have [accumulated over the past two years] is that somebody needs to be right there maintaining it and supporting it and making sure it's up,” he said.

But in all of its pivoting and eagerness to explore new opportunities, Growth Tech has not forgotten its JUTC roots. An ongoing software upgrade, slated to be completed by mid-November, will mean Whitehorne and his team will be able to do even more with the State-run bus company.

With the upgrade, Growth Tech will be able to provide the GPS location of each bus, information that could be useful for commuters as well as those at JUTC tasked with efficiently getting their buses to ply routes in Kingston, St Andrew and St Catherine.

“The importance of the GPS location is that it will enable us to offer more services than we're offering now, apart from free Wi-Fi,” Whitehorne explained. “So we can assist in the scheduling of buses. For example, a commuter on JUTC will be able to tell where their bus is and how long the bus will take [to get] from where it is, to the location that they are in. It will also give us the ability to assist the JUTC, if they so require, in scheduling and management of the fleet of buses.”

With the new software the company will also offer clients (who foot the bill for the free Wi-Fi and get ads on the platform in return) more opportunities to do surveys of JUTC riders. According to Whitehorne, the company did a month-long poll leading up to the September 3 election and the results were “not far off the mark”.

He said private companies have also used Growth Tech surveys as test runs for new products.

“Our customers have found [the surveys] to be phenomenally useful. We can instantly test the viability of a product that is to be introduced into the market by having just about every single person who goes on a JUTC bus and use Wi-Fi, give their feedback on a product concept,” said Whitehorne.

He stressed that, in all of this, customers are only asked to provide very basic information such as age and gender when signing up to use the service the first time, and no personal data is ever stored.

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