THE PROMISE OF FREE LOCAL WI-FI
Imagine if you could wander around Toronto and access the Internet without having to worry about mobile data coverage or plans or cost. Imagine a low- income person not having to search out a “free” wi-fi service to check their basic entitlements. Imagine being able to connect to a local free wi-fi service without needing a password or worrying about cost. This is the promise of free local wi- fi.
Today access to the Internet is almost as important as roads and schools. Day- to-day Internet use has gone far beyond simple messaging and posting on social media. Internet access is required to access local and city information, city services and to answer simple questions like: can I park on the street overnight? If so, where and when can I get a permit? What time does the museum open? Where is the nearest coffee shop?
Some might argue that there is already free wi-fi available in, for example, hotels and coffee shops. The reality is that this type of wi-fi access is not, in fact, free. Paying guests of the hotel get wi-fi access. Paying customers in the coffee shop are giving access. This is not a free to all service.
People might voice concern about the abuse of any free service but all of these questions are easily resolved. Excessive usage through streaming or downloading to a specific device can be prevented by slowing down or blocking service. Overnight or periodic resets can be implemented to prevent users maintaining long sessions. Illegal activities can be tracked and traced in the same way as they could on any Internet service.
There are also arguments that public wi-fi is not secure and might be used to steal user’s data. While certainly there are some security concerns, there are also solutions. Security concerns may stop some people carrying out specific types of transactions over a public Internet service, but that’s fine. This service was never intended to replace private Internet access where the appropriate security mechanisms can be implemented.
Some Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) already offer free wi-fi service in their areas. An expansion to all of Toronto’s 83 BIAs would give coverage to all the business areas across the city. Expansion into neighbourhoods would be an easy next step from there. All TTC subway stations provide wi-fi service within, and in some cases around, the subway stations. This could easily be expanded to cover a broader area. Similarly, libraries already provide a wi-fi service and again this service could be boosted to cover pavements and streets near the libraries. Considering the amount of Internet capacity that is delivered to homes and businesses and the limited use of this to a relatively short time each day, there is plenty of capacity for sharing some of that with a free wi-fi program.
Free wi-fi is not a dream. It is not a service that needs to be monetized. It need not depend on non-monetary activities like data collection. It can easily, and quickly, be provided now and rolled out across the city making Internet access available to all at no cost.