The R1-billion tech company that died quietly without a funeral or eulogy

Wi-Fi provider VAST networks, once valued at over R1 billion, was unceremoniously shut down last year and none of its former shareholders want to talk about the company.

It is currently uncertain whether its network remains active and what is happening with its assets like its Wi-Fi hotspots and its exclusivity agreements with establishments.

VAST Networks was established in 2014 as a joint venture between Dimension Data and Naspers, which owned 51% and 49% of the company respectively.

The company combined the Wi-Fi networks of Internet Solutions’ AlwaysOn and MWEB to form a comprehensive new Wi-Fi business.

VAST Networks was officially launched in November 2015 with the aim to deliver carrier-grade Wi-Fi in Southern Africa on an open-access basis.

Its extensive indoor Wi-Fi coverage in hotels, shopping centres, and restaurants was seen as very valuable at a time when mobile data use was exploding.

Former IS CEO Saki Missaikos told MyBroadband that Naspers was interested buying AlwaysOn outright, but Internet Solutions did not want to sell it.

The outcome of these talks was a joint venture with plans to expand VAST’s infrastructure to provide wholesale access to unlicensed spectrum for mobile operators.

Called LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U), VAST would make use of unlicensed spectrum, such as the 5GHz band, to improve data performance without requiring a user to log into a separate Wi-Fi network.

The rise and fall of VAST

Naspers and Dimension Data pumped a lot of money into VAST after its launch, which allowed the Wi-Fi network operator to expand its network and launch a range of new services.

At its peak, VAST operated thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots in highly trafficked areas and offered a range of analytics services to shopping centres.

It also started to trial Wi-Fi offloading with Vodacom with the aim of offering mobile users faster and cheaper mobile data services.

On the surface, things looked good for VAST, but there was a problem – it was not making money and Naspers and Dimension Data were tired of funding the loss-making company.

The Achilles heel for Wi-Fi networks in South Africa has always been the inability to effectively monetize their services, and VAST was no different.

Naspers and Dimension Data decided to put VAST up for sale and in 2018 Investec went to market to attract potential buyers.

A few prominent telecommunications players were interested in VAST’s assets, notably Vodacom and Link Africa.

A deal could, however, not be reached and the directors of VAST Networks announced that the company would be shut down on 25 October 2019.

They said despite considerable efforts, VAST continued to sustain losses, making continued investment therein unsustainable.

“Numerous options have been explored to ensure the continuation of its business, including further shareholder investment, partnerships and the sale of VAST,” they said.

“Following an intensive 18-month sale process with interested parties, an agreement could not be concluded, and all alternate options have now been exhausted, hence the decision to wind-up.”

Uncertainty about its assets and network

While VAST could not find a sustainable operating model, it still had valuable assets and a comprehensive client base.

To find out what happened to these assets and VAST’s clients, MyBroadband contacted Naspers and Dimension Data.

Naspers told MyBroadband that it no longer owns VAST as it was part of the unbundling of MultiChoice at the start of last year.

Naspers referred MyBroadband to the MultiChoice communications team, but they could also not answer questions about VAST.

MultiChoice could only say that the company is being liquidated and that the liquidators would be better positioned to answer questions about the company.

Dimension Data could also not say what was happening with VAST, its network, or its clients.

Now read: VAST Networks is shutting down

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The R1-billion tech company that died quietly without a funeral or eulogy