Should Cities Offer Free Public WiFi Access To Their Citizens?

Free public WiFi for the win… or not?

Do we really need free WiFi in cities? Are there reasons why libraries, coffee shops, and even the subway should steer clear of providing free WiFi to all the people who walk into these spaces knowing that they will be connected to the internet seamlessly, regardless of where they are in the city? Security risks notwithstanding, should cities offer free public WiFi access to all their citizens?

Well, this piece puts public WiFi, local authorities, and citizens on the spot as it explores the reasons why most of us are certain that free public WiFi is one of the best things that we could ever access in the 21st century. But with good comes some bad, so we’ll also address all the pitfalls citizens need to be aware of.

It’s also important to keep in mind the statistics which show that there were 4.13 billion internet users by the end of 2019, and out of this, 854million internet users were from China, with Northern Europe having the highest internet penetration rate of 95%. These numbers continue to rise, even as more countries encourage the use of free public WiFi at blazingly high speeds.

Besides these overall numbers on internet usage on a global scale, the other thing that stands out is that there are many countries across the world that offer the fastest public WiFi, encouraging efficiency in all areas of life for internet users. For instance, leading travel destinations like Lithuania, Croatia, Ireland, the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Romania, Belgium, Hungary, and Slovenia boast the fastest free public WiFi access, and this means that citizens, residents, and visitors/ tourists will remain connected to the world easily. This level of access is also a huge win for tourism because it means better navigation and access to parts of the world that were previously hard to access.

Free WiFi It is true that free public WiFi has played a huge role in the streamlining of operations, enhancing communication, allowing people to enjoy flexible working hours since they can work remotely, bringing the world closer today more than ever before. The rapid growth of cities, corporates, and industries can be attributed to an extent to the rolling out of free public WiFi. However, the biggest winner as a result of free public WiFi has to be an improvement in the quality of life. The rise in the use of telehealth, for example, shows that free access to the internet could easily be classified as a human right because you need the internet to reach your doctor, and the presence of free public WiFi means better access.

So, should cities offer free public WiFi to citizens?

Yes, absolutely. The internet is now one of the most important aspects of our lives, with more and more people (across the age divide) noting that internet access is now just as important as access to power and clean water. Some people argue that access to the internet needs to be declared a human right primarily because of the ability and the power of the internet in giving people access to an education, a chance to access and apply for job offers, and most importantly, the power of the internet in connecting people. Speaking of the connecting power of the internet, it is noteworthy to mention that the social media scene has ballooned over the years, and it is the biggest area of our lives that shows us just how important the internet is.

To put things into perspective; with 7.7billion people in the world today, 3.5billion of us are online. We are using the internet via social media to find partners, organize events to demand social and political change, it’s changed how to access the news, and most importantly, the world is now one big social space where we find connections, bond, and in other cases, form life-long connections.

While there are numerous opportunities on the internet, we need to address the bleak side of things and the fact that not everyone gets to enjoy the power and the benefits of the internet. We are talking about the fact that data allowances and cell phone contracts are very expensive, meaning that low-income earning individuals wouldn’t access the opportunities available on the internet, hence a negative impact and zero or very little improvement of their situations. The lack of internet access and the inability to afford smartphones, unfortunately, creates a very deep divide, contributing to more inequality and higher levels of poverty, with these situations in mind and the fact that not all of us are privileged to afford smartphones and the data plans which can be exorbitant, analysts, as well as advocates for social and economic development, all argue for the provision of free public WiFi access to everyone.

Today, many cities across the world offer free WiFi access to their cities, but looking at what some people are missing out on, it makes some sense to think of free public WiFi as one of those things that should be regarded as human rights.

But even with all the good made possible by the internet, specifically free public WiFi, we need to face the ugly side of the internet because despite the good that comes from the level of connectivity brought about by the internet, specifically through free public WiFi, the other side of the internet tends to be quite dark.

With these sentiments out there, which are the pros and cons of free public WiFi?

Which are the benefits of free public WiFi?

Here are the primary reasons why free public WiFi to cities is an important thing in the world today.

As mentioned above, we use the internet for pretty much everything. And with remote working/ learning slowly becoming a thing, the availability and use of free WiFi is quite important. Regarding connectivity, you could argue that your ability to communicate with the rest of your team would be severely impacted if you missed important work emails on time. But thanks to free public WiFi, you get to check your emails and WhatsApp messages easily, from museums, libraries, restaurants, coffee shops, and even parks. You can join on Zoom meetings with ease, also thanks to free WiFi.

The other perk of free WiFi is access to educational material from the internet. There are countless online courses that you can take from the comfort of your home, or better yet, from your favorite coffee shop. You’ve probably come across many people with their computers on in coffee shops, and you can always tell that they are using the café’s internet to study or get some work done.

Lithuania, Croatia, Estonia, UK, Hungary, etc., are leading travel destinations, and besides having breathtaking sights all around, the biggest selling point of these destinations is access to super-fast free WiFi. Without the free internet access, tourists would have to settle on paying the exorbitant roaming fees, and that would put a dent on income from tourism. Visitors and tourists on leisure or business trips find locations with free internet access preferable, and the internet makes their stay more pleasant. At the end of the day, everyone wins – the customer is happy, and the city’s reputation gets a positive boost.

The other win that comes from access to free public WiFi is in an overall improvement in access, social inclusion, and empowerment. Thanks to free internet access, the less privileged access income sources, and resources that boost their lives. In this light, the internet is pertinent when it comes to empowering the less privileged. But we could all agree that this level of access is only possible where governments offer free access to computers and affordable phone contracts, something that would be made possible by access to libraries with free internet access and free computers. Such initiatives empower and create a higher level of social inclusion, potentially resulting in access to transformative and life-changing information, for example, online courses, job opportunities, and health advice.

Finally, the other big win that would come from access to free public WiFi access is an improvement in the quality of life. In addition to access to job opportunities and education resources, the quality of life is improved by access to health and access to medical services. I this case, we have access to educational sites, but there is also telehealth, which means improved interactions and relationships between doctors and patients  – although some conversations cannot happen publicly, knowing that you can listen to your doctor from one end of the screen and type in from the other is a change in the right direction. Something as simple as filling in your assessment form online is a huge leap in the improvement of healthcare, and for people who cannot afford all internet resources/ tools, free public WiFi makes that possible.

Which are the cons of free Public WiFi?

For institutions wishing to offer free internet services to the public, the installation costs are quite high, and though these infrastructure investments are essential, the extra cost is always transferred to the citizens. We also need to mention how free internet access undoubtedly creates a huge gap between rural and urban areas.

Our biggest area of concern, however, is online security or, rather, the lack of security. Infrastructures setup for free public WiFi are not the most secure, and they are vulnerable to attacks by hackers who often get away with important personal information, which is the primary reason for increased fraud. The main security issues include unencrypted networks, which means easy access to all your information, man-in-the-middle attacks (eavesdropping), malware attacks, sniffing and snooping, and users often fall prey to malicious hotspots which will steal your information or launch ransomware on your device. The good news is that none of us has to face these risks, and we can enhance browsing safety when connected to public WiFi by taking measures like only visiting HTTPS sites, disabling file sharing, logging out of accounts when done, or using VPNs. Also, avoiding networks that aren’t password-protected, disallowing automatic WiFi connection, disabling Bluetooth and WiFi when not in use, and not accessing sites that hold our most sensitive information – these are some of the things we could do for online safety.

The other drawback of free public WiFi is that it might harm the existing ISPs (Internet Service Providers), distorting competition for their services, and even disincentivizing investments, eventually slowing down the sector.

Finally, there an annoying bit of slow internet speeds, which is caused by lower bandwidth connections by the establishments. We are all aware of these issues, and the time lag, along with the risk of malware and other forms of attacks, is the reasons why some people aren’t very supportive of the free public WiFi.

Free public WiFi is this double-edged sword but used properly, it is an excellent resource, and citizens should be allowed access to.

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