Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Case for Free Wi-Fi

 As a young professional who is able to invest some of her extra funds in travel, I've visited a variety of destinations. From rural to cosmopolitan, each trip is unique but what remains constant is free access to the web.

I've been more than surprised with Wi-Fi service in European beaches or remote African hostels; equally disappointed with unreliable networks in different major international airports or high-end hotels in South America. Perhaps it was the timing or the weather or the country's economy and/or infrastructure that made it a possibility or a torture to connect to the Internet. Whatever the reason may be, local and federal governments should join the free Wi-Fi revolution for a variety of reasons.

Free Wi-Fi is not just for tourists anymore.  In urban areas, where Internet service is expensive or even non-existent, residents can benefit from access to the web to search for jobs, access school-related or educational content, download maps, community information or bank statements and healthcare forms. There are some who argue that the investment in free Wi-Fi can lead to people wasting time rather than utilizing their browsing effectively. While the argument may be valid it is also very biased. Just because some consumers can afford their own high-speed Internet service to read Buzzfeed at leisure it does not mean those who cannot pay for the same luxury should be given half the stick. If criminal activity is the concern, service providers could explore a capability of blocking certain content or websites. The goal is to provide leverage, so that the residents with no access to the web can get up to speed and trained in how to use a computer and get web-based skills, such as search engine researching, file sharing and email writing, that are  requirements in today's office workforce.

Small businesses can also benefit from offering free Wi-Fi and not footing the bill. Compared to Starbucks or other chain establishments where Wi-Fi is expected, local mom and pop ventures may not have the funds to pay for web services for their patrons. It can seem cheap but when considering the rising costs of rent, supplies, salaries and insurance, Wi-Fi as a must item can be overlooked by business owners. Imagine then how easy and helpful it can be for that local shop to say to customers, "you can connect to free city-wide Wi-Fi here." Businesses and customers are happy and the city looks good. All in all a grand slam for this sector. What might be of concern is the funding for free city-wide wireless services. How, after all, can cities afford such a large investment? Many global models allow users to get free Wi-Fi access for 10 to 30 minutes, enough to check a reservation or access directions. In other models telecom companies sponsor the service by claiming a Wi-Fi network name or asking users to watch an ad prior to access. In my opinion I think the option of having companies sponsor free wireless services makes sense. They can advertise and get good neighbor points. If they want to foster an even better image then their ads can raise awareness about a cause or charity they support. Throw the PR teams a bone! What is extremely annoying is when the two models are merged. Example: A connection-less person is trying to access the web for something important, like checking credit card balance, but spends half of the allotted time logging in to the free service and putting up with adverts, then working to beat the clock. While it's understandable that free Wi-Fi is free, making users jump through hoops to get some service is simply tacky.

Ta-da! Of course we must consider tourism. After all, I did begin this piece speaking about the places around the world where I have gotten good or bad Wi-Fi connections. As more and more millenials continue to travel, work abroad and expand their networks internationally, web accessibility is a necessity- not an amenity. This will become more true as younger generations, who grew up 100 percent connected compared to Gen Y, enter college and introduce us to the next wave of global web service expectations. Let's not get carried away with the future for now; the point is that as citizens of the world, young adults want to continue communicating despite the border or time zone they are in on any given day. On the flip side, baby boomers are much more active online as well. A 2013 survey by the Pew showed that 43 percent of people age 65 and older use social-networking sites. This group is also growing its online shopping habits and general information consumption. Blame it on their kids or grandchildren but boomers want Wi-Fi too, if not for life survival while abroad then for entertainment when enjoying golden years trips. Free Wi-Fi makes any destination more marketable, and forward thinking tourism boards are making sure they expand their services while promoting what is already available now. 

Here in the motherland, New York and Boston were recently featured in the news for offering free Wi-fi across areas of their cities. While there are connectivity issues to keep in mind, such as weather, location and a limited amount of bandwidth, the effort is still commendable. New York will be using old city payphones as Wi-Fi access points, which means thousands of access points, and Boston obtained grants to establish and use it's own fiber optic network.

 It isn't hard to assume we will see more of these efforts replicated across cities in America and the rest of the world. As well as witness improved services in the places that are already set up for free Wi-Fi services. What needs to take place is faster implementation and the understanding that offering this service should not be seen as a burden by companies or governments, but as an investment.