Public Wi-Fi in the spotlight

As public Wi-Fi becomes more prevalent, the Communications Alliance has warned that congestion, security and copyright are all issues that Wi-Fi owners will have to consider in Australia.

As public Wi-Fi becomes more prevalent, the Communications Alliance has warned that congestion, security and copyright are all issues that Wi-Fi owners will have to consider in Australia.

With public Wi-Fi popping up everywhere, from cafes to fast-food outlets like McDonald's and Hungry Jack's, it means that these companies effectively become the carriage service providers for the internet that they provide to customers. With that comes a number of regulatory and industry issues, as the Communications Alliance yesterday outlined in an information paper.

Being classed as a "carriage service provider" under the law is less onerous than being classed as a traditional carrier, the Communications Alliance said, because these providers do not need a carrier licence, provided the network doesn't have a range of more than 500 metres. But the Communications Alliance warned that as these public Wi-Fi services are increasingly used as alternatives to traditional carrier networks, they could potentially bear some of the traditional responsibilities that those carriers would have.

For example, carriers are required to provide emergency call capability, and, while there is an argument about whether data-only service providers would need to provide emergency call capability, there may be a customer expectation that they would be able to call emergency services via Wi-Fi.

"As Wi-Fi networks become ubiquitous, they may become seen as complementary to traditional networks. As a result, there is some potential for the associated regulatory arrangements for emergency voice calling to change over time," the Communications Alliance said. "As the usage of Wi-Fi networks grows, it is feasible that emergency voice calling will become partly a policy issue, and partly an issue of public expectations. This expectation may lead to a mismatch between the technology and end-user expectations."

A public Wi-Fi provider that has advertising, but doesn't charge for the service, may be exempt from requiring a carrier licence. However, charging end users for the service could lead to it being considered a carrier, the Communications Alliance said.

One way in which this can be offset, according to the Communications Alliance, is where an existing carrier acts on behalf of the restaurant or company providing the free Wi-Fi. For example, Primus supplies the Wi-Fi to Hungry Jack's customers.

One of the arguments put forward by iiNet in its successful battle against the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) was that internet account holders may not be the actual people infringing on copyright; with open Wi-Fi networks, even people on the street could be downloading copyrighted material without the knowledge of the account holder. Following the iiNet case, the Communications Alliance noted that public Wi-Fi networks could come under pressure to prevent piracy and downloading prohibited content.

Despite these concerns, the Communications Alliance noted that the 802.11u standard for Wi-Fi will bring about better and simpler certification of users' identities, and better encryption will improve a number of the issues currently associated with public Wi-Fi. The support of WPA2 in 802.11u creates a more secure environment for Wi-Fi networks, the Communications Alliance said.

But as with all mobile networks, public Wi-Fi will run into one major problem in the future: spectrum limitation. Currently, Wi-Fi devices operate in the unlicensed public spectrum bands of 2.4GHz and 5GHz. There are three available channels in the 2.4GHz, and 20 in the 5GHz. In high-density population areas, like metropolitan areas where there are large numbers of apartments and office buildings, there may be radio frequency interference for those Wi-Fi networks. The Communications Alliance said that most smartphone devices currently use the 2.4GHz spectrum band for Wi-Fi access, but said that congestion will push vendors to allow devices to access the 5GHz band.

The Communications Alliance said that Melbourne CBD is already suffering from Wi-Fi congestion in the 5GHz band, while Sydney is "arguably satisfactory" at the moment in both bands.

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