Free public Wi-Fi: a capital idea?


Is State-provided wireless internet a human right? An enhancement to metropolitan life? Or a commercial and technical nonrunner? JOHN COLLINSexamines what free Wi-Fi would do for Dublin city

IT’S A constant of the urban landscape: the smartphone user staring into a screen as the world passes by on the street around them. Whether it’s updating Facebook, looking for directions or checking a football score, the Irish have embraced ubiquitous internet connections.

Under a proposal being considered by Dublin City Council to provide free wireless internet coverage in public spaces, the absorbed smartphone user could become an even more common phenomenon on the capital’s streets.

Last week the mobile operator O2 announced that it will provide free internet access in public spaces in the City of Westminster and the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea in time for next summer’s Olympic Games. O2 claims the deal with the councils will create the largest free wireless area in Europe and significantly enhance the experience for the millions expected to flock to London for both the Olympics and the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee.

The current proposal to the Dublin authorities was inspired by a trip to the Spanish city of Bilbao by the Labour councillor Oisín Quinn. Sitting in a park in the Basque city, he noticed signs for a free municipal Wi-Fi service that would allow him to get online with his smartphone without the risk of incurring a huge roaming bill from his mobile operator. Quinn was particularly taken with the ease with which he was able to get online.

“There was no registration,” says Quinn. “You just see the network and when you connect to it an advertisement is displayed.” So taken was Quinn with Bilbao’s example that he tabled a motion to Dublin City Council to create a similar scheme. The proposal, which called on the city manager to consider how to provide free wireless internet access in Dublin’s “public parks and squares”, was passed last Monday night. The city manager is due to report back by the end of the month, leading to speculation that such a scheme could be in place as early as next year.

Quinn believes that tourists would be among the main beneficiaries of free internet. “They are usually very worried about using data due to the roaming charges,” says Quinn. “But people now have so many location apps on their phones which they would use if they had free Wi-Fi.” He believes that if tourists were able to use their phones to find out what attractions are nearby, it could benefit the city’s museums, galleries and restaurants.

“It’s a positive thing for a modern city to have, and while it’s good for tourists, and could generate business, it will also be an amenity for Dubliners.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council recently published a report on whether internet access is a human right. While it failed to draw firm conclusions on the core issue it concluded that blocking access to the internet impinges freedom of expression, something demonstrated during last year’s Arab Spring uprising, when access was cut off to prevent demonstrations being organised.

But is internet access a utility our local government should be providing to us for free? We’ll soon be paying for the water that comes out of the taps in our homes, so why should a public body provide something for free that is already widely available commercially? In 2006 Dublin City Council spent 12 months working on a much more ambitious proposal for the provision of a citywide Wi-Fi service. With internet access far less widely available just a few years ago, the provision of free coverage at a cost of between €12 million and €20 million, was seen as a way of bridging the “digital divide” and bringing the benefits of the internet to socially deprived areas of the city.

The suburbs of Ballymun and Ballyfermot were identified as the initial locations, and the council was close to appointing a commercial partner for the scheme when it was abruptly pulled. An EU ruling in May 2007, which became known as the Prague judgment, found that similar proposals in the Czech capital distorted competition and amounted to unfair state aid. The council scaled back and instead promised to make wireless internet access available in its own properties that are open to the public, such as libraries and City Hall.

But much has changed since 2007. For a start, the latest proposal for Dublin is significantly less ambitious and would cover large public spaces rather than the entire city. Other cities in Europe have also managed to escape EU censure under the Prague judgment by reigning in their ambitions for their schemes.

Possibly the biggest change since the previous proposal for Dublin was the introduction of the Apple iPhone.

“Three or four years ago there was no market for this, as there were not enough smartphones around,” says Shane Deasy, managing director of Bitbuzz, which provides commercial Wi-Fi services in hotels, bars and other venues in the UK and Ireland. “People just didn’t want to [go online] in public on their laptop.” Bitbuzz already has experience in providing free public internet access. As part of the refurbishment of Meeting House Square, in Temple Bar in Dublin, which was completed in December, it now provides free Wi-Fi in the space, which is used for cultural events.

Dermot McLaughlin, chief executive of Temple Bar Cultural Trust, which runs the square, says it makes sense for a “contemporary social space which is privately owned but publicly used” to provide the service.

He says there are social, cultural and business benefits from it, not least the power of recommendations provided through services such as Foursquare and Twitter, which visitors can now use more easily thanks to the availability of Wi-Fi. “People should have a reasonable expectation that free Wi-Fi will be available, particularly in a capital city that wants to be at the cutting edge of the knowledge economy,” says McLaughlin.

Based on the success of the Temple Bar scheme, which McLaughlin says will be expanded to other spaces in the quarter, Bitbuzz has talked to the Office of Public Works and city traders about providing the free service in St Stephen’s Green and on Grafton Street. “If Dublin City Council wants to do something we would be happy to tie in with that,” says Deasey.

This raises the question of whether the city council should be spending money providing a service that the private sector seems to be on the verge of supplying. McLaughlin says that the Cultural Trust has a “very attractive arrangement” with Bitbuzz but points out that his is a private limited company that doesn’t draw down public funds.

Eircom also has a significant number of hot spots in the city that its broadband and mobile customers can access without charge; noncustomers pay €1 a day. Those willing to share their email address with the company can also get 10 minutes’ free access.

The London scheme “will run at no cost to the councils or the taxpayer”, according to O2, whose involvement is not entirely without self-interest. Like those of other operators, O2’s mobile network in the centre of London is getting seriously congested, with the result that customers get slow or nonexistent data connections. “We’ve been quite open about the importance of layering technologies” – or offering Wi-Fi and other alternatives to 3G – “because there are challenges for 3G in densely populated areas,” says Emma Hart, a spokeswoman for O2 in the UK.

In the smaller Irish market, congestion is not an issue yet, but this may change soon, according to Elaine Robinson of Eircom. “We are seeing data usage doubling year on year, so for us Wi-Fi is part of our core strategy of giving customers as good a data connection as possible. By the end of 2013 Eircom plans to have 4,000 hot spots around the country compared to its current 730.”

The simplest solution for citywide coverage may be to encourage businesses and residents to share their Wi-Fi connections. Fon, a Spanish company, has been championing people to do this on a quid-pro-quo basis since 2006. Sign up to Fon to share your Wi-Fi connection – something it provides you with the equipment to do securely – and you can avail of free Wi-Fi from other Fon users around the world.

Fon will soon have five million hot spots in its global network, although coverage in Ireland is spotty at best. Although Fon’s venture was initially a community-driven initiative, the company’s main business is now partnering with mobile operators, according to its vice-president of business development, Alex Puregger.

While welcoming any scheme that encourages Wi-Fi usage, he cautions the Dublin authorities against doing anything that interferes with the existing telecoms business models. “If you give it away for free you are disrupting the business of someone who is investing in these services,” says Puregger.

Quinn’s proposal draws heavily from Dublinbikes, the bicycle-sharing scheme in the capital, which has been one of the most successful public-private partnerships of recent years. More than 30,000 people have subscribed for that scheme, which has generated more than a million bicycle journeys since it was launched, in 2009. The advertising firm JC Decaux pays for the operation of the scheme in exchange for free advertising in public areas.

“The plan would be to start in the centre of the city and work our way out from there,” says Quinn. “Similarly, it was thought the Dublinbikes scheme would primarily interest tourists, but it has been embraced by Dubs as well.” While the free advertising space provided to JC Decaux has proven a successful, if sometimes controversial, source of funding for the provision of bicycles, there is no guarantee that enough revenue would be generated from online advertising to cover the cost of a scheme.

The internet giant Google partnered with the city of San Francisco on a so-called “municipal Wi-Fi” scheme that ultimately failed to take off, largely because of political infighting between the city mayor and councillors. “If anyone understands internet advertising it’s Google, and it hasn’t been able to do it in San Francisco,” says Puregger.

Some councillors in Dublin expressed concern that Quinn’s proposal is not costed. Carlow attracted headlines in 2007 when it announced it was providing Wi-Fi all over the town, though users would have to pay for the service. It is understood the capital investment was less than €300,000, and while it was a technical success it proved a commercial failure. Potential subscribers simply didn’t see the value in paying for another service when they had data plans on their mobiles or broadband in their offices.

Quinn is acutely aware that Dublin city’s finances are under pressure and admits the scheme is unlikely to proceed without a commercial partner. Ultimately, potential commercial partners may deliver his vision without the support of the local authority.

Paris: Free Wi-Fi and the smart-city strategy

The free public Wi-Fi introduced in Paris in 2007 had an inauspicious start. An unsuccessful bidder for the contract, aghast at the prospect of free hot spots destroying its commercial network, delayed the project by taking legal action against city hall. People complained that the Wi-Fi zones were poorly advertised. And then the authorities were forced to disable the service in six libraries after a trade union said librarians suffered headaches and muscular pains after the devices were installed. (The mayor’s office says there was no evidence of a link to the electromagnetic waves, but it wanted to avoid conflict.)

Those early setbacks notwithstanding, the mayor’s office sees the five-year-old project as a success, and has plans to extend it. The scheme now comprises 400 Wi-Fi zones located in public parks and municipal buildings, including cultural centres and sports halls, across the city. It has about 60,000 regular users and clocks up three million minutes of use each month.

“What we wanted to do was provide a high-quality public service to Parisians – and not only to Parisians but to all users in the city, including tourists and people who come here for work,” says Jean-Louis Missika, deputy mayor of Paris with responsibility for innovation, research and universities.

The service is particularly popular with the tens of millions of tourists who visit each year, giving them access to maps and museum information from their mobile phones without having to pay exorbitant roaming charges.

City hall presents the scheme as a mutually beneficial deal: the mayor’s office provides a reliable service at an installation cost of “a few thousand euro” per hot spot, and the private operator – currently Orange, a brand owned by France Telecom – gets to vaunt hundreds of additional outdoor Wi-Fi zones to subscribers while reducing traffic on its 3G and 4G data networks.

The next step will be to expand the scheme beyond parks and public buildings – to turn Paris into one big Wi-Fi zone by making the network accessible on every street – which the city hopes to achieve within two years.

The plan is driven by a larger ambition than simply providing Parisians with internet access on the move. According to Missika, it’s a pillar of a “smart city” strategy to build better digital infrastructure that will improve the way Paris is run.

“What’s at play here is much bigger,” he says. “If the city wanted to install a parking meter that was connected to a grid, then we wouldn’t need to put down fibre-optic cables. We would just use the city’s Wi-Fi network.

“If we wanted to put in temperature or pollution sensors, we could just attach them to lamp posts and they would have access to the Wi-Fi network. Wi-Fi is quite old by now. We’re trying to look a little farther ahead. How can it improve our infrastructure? Where does it fit into our global strategy?”

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic