Wi-Fi, Why Not!?

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Wi-Fi, why not!?

By Jason Taylor


Wireless internet access is now commonplace in the home and workplace. Yet head out onto the street and you enter a fragmented realm of pay-to-use Wi-Fi hotspots, cafes that grant access in exchange for buying a drink or meal, and a smattering of public buildings with free access including many backpacker hostels and hotels. So why isn’t free wireless internet access more widespread?

Many places have already tried public Wi-Fi, including London in the UK and more locally Adelaide and Perth. Melbourne City Council announced an action plan in the Council Plan 2013–17 to develop a strategy for free public Wi-Fi within the Melbourne CBD.

A trial Wi-Fi network would likely include the CBD and other inner public spaces such as Docklands, Southbank, and the parks bordering the eastern and northern edges of the CBD. Areas hosting major events would also be included in the Wi-Fi network footprint. Measuring the success of a trial could be difficult, partly because of the need to find technology and commercial partners.

City councils that have invested in public Wi-Fi justify the use of public funds with a standard set of rationales, such as reducing the digital divide, encouraging civic participation and social connectedness, and boosting local business..

Outdoor Wi-Fi could also help the city increase its efficiency. For example, building inspectors, public works employees, and other field workers could connect over Wi-Fi instead of the cellular network, lowering communications costs. Sprinklers could be controlled over the same network. Sensors could alert city visitors to open parking spaces, and so on.

Our use of public Wi-Fi hotspots is growing. An Office of National Statistics survey showed 4.9 million people used them in 2010, up from 0.7 million people in 2007. The rapid adoption of smartphones and tablet devices is responsible for much of that growth. Although the majority of these products also have 3G access, connection speeds can be erratic. Downloading or sending files can take an excruciatingly long time, and chomp through monthly data allowances with alarming speed.

So should councils provide free public Wi-Fi? Is that really a justifiable expenditure for councils in the current economic climate? Proponents argue that the benefits outweigh the costs of installing and maintaining a public network. It can provide internet access for people that could not otherwise afford it, help tourists avoid crippling data roaming charges and navigate around a city, and drive shoppers into particular city centre areas.

There is a strong argument that governments are well placed to invest in experimentation and innovation. Information discovery is a major constraint on economic development. Investment in public Wi-Fi would not be directed to achieve known goals and outcomes, but to discover and coordinate new knowledge and leverage local entrepreneurship and civic initiatives.

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