Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

Summary: Public Wi-Fi is there as a benefit, more often provided by larger franchises who can afford to offer it. But with legality, cost and piracy issues, should public wireless access be free?


Students are slowly beginning to move in to their new homes in and around their respective universities in preparation for the upcoming academic term. Most bills and subscriptions like electricity, gas, water, TV licence and other commodities are provided already and simply need a direct debit to continue without a cut in service.

Getting the broadband up and running can prove lengthy at times, however. In my case, going into my second year of university, it took me an entire month of wading through the bureaucracy of having a previous owner tagging the line.

It was like the Shawshank Redemption; except with more wading through crap and no bloody redemption.

This is on the day that the plan to open up the spectrum and provide a coast-to-coast wireless service, giving many of the estimated 100 million US citizens free broadband access was shot down by the FCC.

The Digital Economy Bill, in essence the United Kingdom's legislation to prevent piracy and hammer down on Internet related 'crime' could still threaten public wireless access in the country. Universities were at risk from closing down their wireless hotspots on campus because of the risk factor relating to students downloading copyrighted material over their networks.

So with this in mind, should public wireless hotspots be free? Taking into account wireless security, piracy and privacy, as well as the businesses who provide the network, frankly I personally still can't decide whether they should be or not.

Some of the arguments for free public Wi-Fi:

  • Builds up geo-location facilities by allowing street mapping companies like Google drive by and collect information about these hotspots. You'll find more often than not these free Wi-Fi access points are unencrypted, so although all the traffic sent and received by Wi-Fi users could be read, drive-by hotspot detectors can use them for mapping purposes.
  • Increases visitors to your business though it doesn't guarantee they will buy something. Many café and coffee shop owners open up wireless broadbad on their premises to attact customers, including those who are on a 'working lunch' and want to catch up on some paperwork while having a coffee and a bite to eat.
  • It's free! What could be more of an argument? It automatically saves time by not having to enter in card details and the need to fill our expenses forms and suchlike, and it's 'plug-and-play' without any hassle. The cost often isn't the problem; in my experience it's the inconveneince of having to go through the payment rigmarole for what will inevitably be a short amount of time.

And some for the opposing team:

  • It's not secure in that most public networks to allow everyone instant access is to leave them unencrypted so users can browse straight away. But as these networks are not encrypted, anything you do, say, visit, browse or write online could be intercepted. If you have shared folders on your laptop, they could be read too.
  • Businesses suffer from scroungers maybe buying one cheap $1.50 coffee and sitting there for hours. Some coffee shops are pulling wireless access off their menus because frankly, a place without Internet access is relaxing especially in Silicon Valley.
  • Credit cards can be used to prevent piracy in that you can prove exactly where you are at a certain time. Often the IP and unique MAC address of your computer will be recorded on connection, so that if you are accused of piracy and you have been naughty, they can prove it was in fact you. This acts as not only a deterrant not to pirate, but also acts as an incentive to use paid Wi-Fi access.

Free Wi-Fi access appears to be more of a backup solution than anything. And when I say 'backup', I actually mean 'backed into a corner'.

Most people will use public Wi-Fi in Starbucks, for example if they are absolutely desperate to use it. Many students moving into their new houses at the start of the academic year who are struggling to get their broadband turned on will be thankful for the free Wi-Fi access around town to use in the meantime.

While larger businesses could provide wireless broadband for free in their franchises, smaller café owners may struggle and understandably, with users taking advantage of the wireless access and not compensating the owners. And if users do pirate on a free network, the liability will fall with the café owners and the lawsuits could start flooding in. Unfair really, isn't it?

Should public wireless Internet access be free?

Topics: Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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  • Most of the issues cited are red herrings

    All kinds of arguments have been posed against open Internet access, everything from "stealing songs" to "kiddie porn" to "aiding terrorism". But behind the scenes, the ones who truly have the attention of the regulators are the commercial service providers like AT&T and Deutsche Telecom, who have billions in revenue that are threatened by free public access. As usual, corporate interests again win and the citizens lose.
    terry flores
    • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

      It seems Mr. Pink is advocating nothing new: Find something you love doing. This is the same message virtually any successful business owner will relate.

      Those successful employed people doing wonderful things outside their employment - for free - obviously have a comfort level derived from the profit of their labors that allows them to do so. Either you live by what you can grow or make, or you work for someone who provides value to clients in exchange for money so that you may buy those things. If your product or service is of value to me, I may freely decide to purchase it or not. Profit is therefore related to the exercise of free will, an exchange of values. What could possibly be more human, or moral?
      • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

        You've got to consder that there are risks in using "free wifis" aswell. Most of the time, you're probably okay if you accidentally hit "Connect" on Free Public WiFi, as you're just trying to connect to a computer that's unwittingly rebroadcasting its own inability to connect. But there could be occasion for someone with evil deeds in their heart to allow the connection and grab logins or other data from your connection, so try and block your system from ever connecting to "Free Public WiFi" in your network settings. In most cases, the actually free Wi-Fi will come with a more legit-sounding name, like AT&T Wifi, <a href=""><font color="black">Last Minute Urlaub</font></a> or something similar. Be aware of this.
      • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

        The travel sector is clearly making the most of public WiFi offerings as part of their business model, with related businesses finding ways to monetize paid or free internet access. The <a href=""><font color="black">Motorschaden</font></a> business user took up most of this audience, at 42%. This trend has been noticeably growing for the business sector. Google, for instance, is buying into the travel search industry, and even offering free public WiFi for travelers this holiday season. The search giant has also been influential in pushing industry change.
    • Nothing is free

      Free public access has to run over non-free hardware. Because a Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi, with payment being people staying longer and buying more of their product, doesn't mean that they're getting that access free form an ISP.

      What you're advocating is that the government should now use taxpayers money to give free what companies have invested billions into to make a profit? I guess it's no big deal as you don't work for that company, so your job is secure.

      But what if they targeted the field you earn your living in next? would it be fair then?
      John Zern
      • Absolutely right.

        @John Zern Nothing worth having is free. It's always just a case of who is paying and how. When people say that a service with value should be "free" what they really mean is that they want the service and they want someone else to pay the bill.
    • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

      @terry flores actually AT&T & Deutshe Telecom are more worried about using up their bandwidth, since for the most part they are paid by the provider of the Wi Fi, not the user. They get paid in the US at least the same whether someone is using it or not.
      • Finally, a real answer!

        Not some philosophical socialist vs. capitalist horsesh!t that these morons seem to endlessly engage in.
        ahh so
  • The alternative ?

    Then it will be paid for. And you're back into the rules of economics, price, cost, market...

    Providing wifi services is mostly about infrastructure costs. Of course costs will depend on the usage, because you'll have to dimension the infrastructure for target usage, but there are no marginal costs. That means that if you have a lot of customers you'll get as rich as cresus ever was, but if you do not reach your BEP you go broke.

    The central point for paid for wifi is then customers. Is it possible to find enough paying customers to reach that BEP ? As there is no marginal cost, there is no fair value. Determining the price and evaluating audience for a given price becomes fairly difficult then.

    Attraction to the public is also difficult to evaluate. unlimited nationwide 24/7 wireless access to internet was $30 a month. smthg like $8 a month on that sum goes into the phone rebate you are given for your two years contract. That's 60ct/day for your acess. The conclusion ? You certainly won't attract much consummers at more than $1 or $2 for 24 hours. with this no chance you can reach your BEP.

    So no paid for wifi either.
  • Sure it should be free...

    Why let an extreme minority of people mess it up for everyone else?
  • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

    Since when is anything "public" free? I am so sick of the idea in this country that when the government supplies something that it is free! NO IT IS NOT! Someone is paying for it! That someone is you and me! Not to mention that when something goes "public" it will be under attack from ever activist group in the country and as a result it will become a heavily filtered, not so "free" china style internet access. Is that really what we need? Internet access is not a right, if you want it then get a job and pay for it!
    • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

      To getinrdone --

      Finally some financial/economic sense. Many societal problems -- in the U.K., U.S., and elsewhere -- can be traced back directly to the feeling of entitlement, the belief that "the government owes me something." Internal and external security, enforcement of laws, and other very few and specific tasks ... those should be the purview of government. The rest should fall to the private sector.

      That said, although it might sound contradictory, I [i]do[/i] agree that the government owes us PLENTY, considering the vast percentage of our income that it confiscates. Sadly, when the government tries to provide any service that's better and more efficiently performed by the private sector, the results are disastrous. I'd rather keep my tax money and buy services from companies that have a competitive stake in success or failure ... when the government devours an industry, there's no competition, no profit, and thus no incentive for it do its job well.
      • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

        @Churlish: Stating that no profit means no incentive to do a good job is equivalent to stating that the only thing that can possibly incentivize someone to do a good job is the profit motive. Do you really believe that? I certainly don't. Not only is it insulting and dehumanizing, it's demonstrably false.<br><br>Have a look at <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a> for the "surprising" truth about human motivation, though the only thing surprising about it is how many people these days actually find it surprising. Ayn Rand and philosophers of her ilk have set our understanding of human psychology back by decades, and our society is just now beginning to rediscover the basic truths that she all but wiped out.
      • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

        @Churlish -

        Do corporations asking for bailouts, tax cuts, and/or the usual amount of "government subsidy" (corporate welfare) think they are entitled to them?

        And "profit motive" works just as well for you or I. If you see the value of work decreasing, would you work or learn to do something to get at the pay (the value) OF the work?
      • masonwheeler, the term profit doesn't

        have to apply to "money" only. When a person builds his own barn, he "profits" from it by having it built to his standards, his tastes, and he saves money: all gains.

        When the government is involved, they have no incentive to do it right or to it maximun potential: they just pass the blame back and forth if it has issues, and burys the problem in a healthcare bill or something when looking for more money to fix it.
        John Zern
      • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?


        you couldnt be more wrong. the private sector is only motivated by profits. do you know your reasoning is exactly what electric companies used 100 years ago as their excuse for not providing electricity to rural areas? if those towns didnt build their own public utilities, theyd be without electricity even today. and the same thing is happening today with internet. and again, towns are taking care of themselves by building their own fiber-optic network. the only problem is that about 18 states have bans on municipal networks. and those bans arent going anywhere until we all finally agree that internet access IS a right. the ISP's can charge whatever they like for internet speed, but every American should be able to have internet.
    • You do....

      @getinrdone <br><br>drive on "free" public roads do you not? And drink from "free" water fountains and use "free" public toilets. You may also listen to "free" AM/FM radio and use "free" parks and libraries. Maybe your children even go to "free" public schools as well.<br><br>Most of the arguments here miss the fundamental point. If "free" Wi-Fi becomes necessary as part of the infrastructure to make a country (or state/county/city) more competitive, then it will become "free". In the meantime, controlling and charging for access (and of course investing in the infrastructure) is the major focus of the corporate players.<br><br>I can certainly see the day when "free" Wi-Fi" will be necessary to remain competitive with the "rest of the world", however you define that. At that point we can argue about how to PAY for it.
      • RE: Should public Wi-Fi access be 'free'?

        Free roads, fountains, toilets are paid for by taxpayers and, of course, not free. With the exception of taxpayer-paid 'public' radion, there's nothing free about AM/FM radio: businesses wishing to advertise to the broadcaster's audience exchange their services and money.
        Your reference to public schools highlights the argument. For roughly equivalent or less cost, we could privately school U.S. children. The government product only survives due to a monopoly of force, the ability to extract tax revenues to fund the substandard edifice. "Necessary" is the rationale for its continuance.
        Further, between unfunded obligations and national debt, our collective debt approaches 100 trillion...yes, with a T. Our debt to GDP ratio is approaching the level that busted Greece. The U.S. is financially insolvent by any standard measurement of the term.

        Let's argue how to pay for it before obligating ourselves.
      • You certainly have a point

        @tnt60<br><br>I agree that the US government (and many others) have squandered lots of money on questionable "causes" and continue to do so. I understand the problem of debts an deficits also. If I may digress, the tragedy in the US (and other countries) is that instead of balancing the budget long term, with surpluses when the economy is strong (in effect applying brakes) and deficits when it is weak (providing a fiscal stimulus) the governments have been spending like drunken sailors in good times and bad. The consequence is that Keynesian policies are now extremely risky dues to the huge national debts.<br><br>My point however still stands. IF universal access to the web becomes a key foundation for a strong and growing economy (such as transportation and education), then it would be foolhardy not to invest in order to facilitate economic growth. You CAN grow your way out of a bad debt and deficit situation, but if the economy stagnates, or worse, shrinks, you can end up in one helluva mess.
      • tnt60: even the "free radio" we listen to is costing us money...

        <i>there's nothing free about AM/FM radio: businesses wishing to advertise to the broadcaster's audience exchange their services and money. </i>

        Though it may seem like the advertisers are paying for the "free radio" that we enjoy, the hidden fact is that there too we the public is paying the bill.

        An advertiser may pay the radio station, and we don't see the cost of that advertising, but we actually are paying for that "free radio" when the cost of advertising is passed on down to the consumer in the form of higher prices for the products being advertised.