The Case for Free Municipal WiFi
A while back there was much noise being made about Birmingham being the first city in the country with city-wide WiFi Internet access. This was be supplied by BT Openzone with free access to essential council services and entertainment guides being provided by Birmingham FIZ. In this last year I've been working in the city with my laptop and no permanent office and recently I succumbed to the iPhone which works much faster over WiFi, so I've had first hand experience of what it's like to be a mobile worker here. Added to this I was in Austin, Texas last week for the South By South West Interactive Festival, a tech-heavy event where constant access to the Internet was a necessity and where part of my remit was to see what lessons and knowledge I could bring back to Birmingham.
But first, a summary of the Birmingham situation. Currently, if you want free WiFi, and everyone wants free WiFi, your best bet is to find a small independent-ish cafe. My favourites are Rooty's in the Custard Factory and Coffee Lounge on Navigation Street. Here you can work as long as you like with no restrictions on what sites you visit. Weatherspoons recently trumpeted their free WiFi service in all their pubs but when I tried it in the Dragon Inn on Hurst Street it failed miserably and the help phone number on the leaflet was disconnected. The rest of the WiFi is paid for by a combination of subscription and tokens, something I really can't be bothered with for occasional use in places which aren't necessarily suitable for working. The Cloud is proudly available at BullRing but can you imagine working there?
Of course this sort of Internet access isn't just meant for people working on laptops. Many handheld devices are WiFi enabled from iPods to PlayStationPortables and their primary purpose is not writing blog posts about how bad WiFi provision is in the city. But these are, by definition, mobile devices designed to be mobile. Logging in to a variety of paid for networks across a variety of locations is not convenient. Not to mention that the interfaces for these services are diabolical to say the least. And while the FIZ program is laudable it does seem to have stalled somewhat and I can't say I know anyone who uses it. (Feel free to correct me - I'd love for this project to succeed). So, in my experience, the BT-sponsored city-wide WiFi experiment has been a bit of failure.
One reason for its failure might be the rise of 3G cards for laptops that are either built into the computer or come as a USB stick. You'll have seen adverts for these all over town and a friend of mine has been using one. She loves it. That is, she loves it when it lets her access all of the Internet. Occasionally, and quite randomly, the Content Control filters kick in and she's treated like a naughty teenager which is most annoying for a grown adult. But the content filters don't just block porn and blatantly offensive sites. They block pretty much everything that could be considered a "Chat Room". Here's how chat room is defined in the UK code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content on mobiles.
A chat room is a virtual environment where people can communicate with others, including people they don't know, by exchanging written words or images
Does that remind you of anything? The whole Internet by any chance? I wonder, when you remove the ability to communicate with people from the Internet, what's left? Shopping? Well, Amazon has comments on reviews now making every product page a "virtual environment where people can communicate with others". Should our children be protected from Amazon?
If this seems over the top then consider this. One of the sites blocked is Flickr, the photo sharing site so dangerous that it forms the backbone of The Big Picture, an arts outreach program from those terrible subversives at Audiences Central. Thank you, mobile companies, for saving our children from such potential evils.
But it gets even more bizarre. While my friend can't access Flickr, with it's pretensions to artistry and relatively fluffy community, she can get on YouTube where the comments are notorious for their levels of offensiveness, crudity and invocation of John Gabriel's Greater Internet Dickwad Theory. Which leads to only one conclusion. The content filtering of mobile Internet is broken beyond repair. Not only does it frequently crash forcing adults to use the baby pool but it doesn't work to begin with. And to top it all a Google search indicates this was been broken when it launched in 2004.
Do we want these people running Birmingham's wireless Internet provision? Do we want an Internet that, in its default state, fears communication?
Still, you can't blame the mobile providers. They just don't get the Internet. They're used to a world where they control everything and can get away with charging 10p for 140 letters. To put this into context, if all data was priced at the same rate as SMS messages an mp3 music file weighing in at 3MB would cost about ÃÂ£2,200 to download. Add to this the audacious ringtone scam (how do they get away with this!) and you can see the clash of cultures as they move into the realm of proper Internet provision.
In fact it reminds me somewhat of the early 1990s when Compuserve and AOL acted as gatekeepers letting families use "the Internet" without having any contact with the actual Internet. They soon failed and I suspect the mobile companies will also fail. You can't stop the conversation. They of all people should know that.
Sorry, I've rambled, but then this stuff does annoy the hell out of me.
But if we can't trust our mobile telephony companies to get it right, can municipal WiFi be saved? During my recent trip to Austin Stef Lewandowski and I recorded a short podcast about the subject. Based on the rigorous scientific methodology of waving our iPhones around as we walked we came to the conclusion that Austin had a much better free public wireless provision than Birmingham and that it seemed to come from predominantly private businesses who understood the value of giving their customers an extra service at minimal cost to them rather than the City. The small indy cafes had it but also large stores like Whole Foods Market who only ask that you click through an advertising page before going onto the Internet, which seemed more than fair enough. They do great food too, a plug I'm happy to give because they treated me like an adult. But after that recording I picked up something else: the City of Austin Complimentary Wireless Mesh Network, covering a significant area around downtown. And, once you click on a t&c page to say you won't do anything really bad, it's free and, from what I could tell, unrestricted.
Why did the local government push for this? Initially as part of a bid to host the World Congress on Information Technology in 2006 allowing delegates free wifi over 50 blocks. But when the event was over they kept it going for everyone to use for free. Why? Because it was good for business. Here's a report from Cisco, the company that installed the network, which has the following piece of blatantly obvious logic:
The city, which now manages the wireless mesh network with assistance from Austin Energy, will continue to provide free Internet access for upcoming conventions, differentiating the convention center from other venues that do not provide free access, says Michael Hall, convention center IT manager. "A lot of conventions are considering coming to Austin because of our use of technology and the fact that we are forward-thinking," he says.
It goes on...
Besides Internet access, the wireless mesh network is providing the foundation for new services and applications that will enhance public safety and staff productivity, and help the city generate economic growth. The wireless mesh network provides convenient high-speed network access to the city's wired infrastructure for city employees, who frequently move from building to building. For example, staff can check messages, access applications and files on their desktop PCs, and file reports. Eventually, city building, safety, and health code inspectors will be able to file paperwork in the field, saving the time necessary to complete forms in their offices.
The new infrastructure also provides a field-testing environment that businesses and city departments can utilize for new application and product development. "It enables the city and technology companies to do their testing in a mix of wireless settings-residential, downtown, and recreational," says Peter Collins, Austin's chief information officer, adding that firms have requested to use the mesh for developing wireless voice over IP (VoIP) products, protocols, and a variety of wireless applications.
Here's a map of the free wifi coverage provided by the city, and remember this doesn't include that provided by the private sector:
And even if you suspect Cisco of bigging up the benefits of the network there's something rather impressive about switching on your computer of wifi-enabled phone and realising you're accessing the Internet - not just part of it, but the real Internet - thanks to the local government. That makes you think the city is progressive, that it understands the importance of letting its people work and communicate unhindered, that it sees Internet access as important as roads and utilities, and that it benefits the local economy in innumerable ways. In other words, that the city is in all sense of the word digital.
So, Birmingham, if you really want to be a digital city this year please heed these points:
- Don't let the mobile phone companies run our wireless Internet. Approach a company that actually understands the Internet.
- Understand that free, unhindered access to wireless Internet for all across the city is a positive thing for society and business alike.
- When people come to a convention or event here they either expect free wifi or will be delighted to find it. Don't force them to buy "tokens" to do their jobs.
- If the state capital city of Texas, which gave us George Bush and is not exactly known for its socialistic tendencies, can do this then why can't we?
We have our Digital Festival this October. How about doing something incredible with it and set our internet free? Chamberlain brought the sewers - who'll bring the WiFi?