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Got a business? Get a hotspot: Italy unveils law to make everywhere offer free public wi-fi

A draft bill going before the Italian parliament will force even the smallest companies across the country to provide free internet access.

Public wi-fi hotspots are not as widespread in Italy as elsewhere. According to recent research by commercial wi-fi network iPass, the Boot has just 49,942 hotspots, putting it in 20th place and very far behind other fellow European countries like France (over 13 million hotspots), the UK (9.8 million), and the Netherlands (two million).

This situation might be soon reversed, however, as a new bill has been put before the Italian parliament that would make hotspots mandatory for almost every business.

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The proposed law, which was signed by over a hundred members of parliament from different political groups, is meant to tackle the digital divide and make Italy a more welcoming environment for tourists by offering ubiquitous free internet access.

"We want to promote internet usage among a population that is not very digitally literate and to offer better services to those coming to visit our country," Sergio Boccadutri, a member of parliament for the centre-left Democratic Party and the first sponsor of the bill, told ZDNet.

According to the proposal, every business, including bars and shops, with at least 100 square meters of space and two employees will have to have an internet connection and share it with the public for free through a wi-fi hotspot. No username and password, the bill says, should be required. Even taxis, private buses, and trains will have to provide a wireless connection while local government offices, courts, hospitals, seaports, and airports are supposed to offer access to the net in at least "two areas" across their site. The government, the bill states, will invest €3m between 2017 and 2019 in order to promote the "spread of routers and modems based on IEEE 802.11n and IEEE 802.11ac".

Given that just 69 per cent of households have internet access, Italy's web penetration is far below the EU's average of 79 per cent. The members of parliament that support the bill think it could help in this regard. "We think wi-fi hotspots could push the demand for broadband services," said Boccadutri, who refutes the notion that making such an investment mandatory would put an economic burden on small businesses. "The law clearly targets businesses which are big enough to sustain an investment that doesn't exceed on average €300 per year, so I am not worried," he said.

The law has quickly gained supporters. An online campaign was launched to invite Laura Boldrini, the lower house's president, to speed up the start of the parliamentary debate on the bill. At the time of writing, the online petition had been signed by more than 2,300 people.

The proposal, though, has also been met with some criticism. Some noted that the businesses which are interested in attracting customers by offering internet access have already installed a hotspot, while those who haven't might have their own reasons for not doing so. "What's the point of forcing a pet shop to have an internet connection and to get and wi-fi router if it doesn't need it?", wrote Roberto Scano , a consultant for the government's Agency for a Digital Italy.

ISPs, while appreciating the intention behind the proposed law, are concerned about some of its provisions, such as the fines for those who don't comply. "There should be some form of exemptions for businesses that operate in digital divide-affected areas. Otherwise they risk [being] fined even though it is technically impossible for them to provide a connection," Dino Bortolotto, president of Assoprovider, an association of small ISPs, told ZDNet. At the same time he is worried about user privacy, since there's no mention in the bill of how data should be treated by businesses providing the hotspot and by the ISPs they would rely upon. "In fairness, we think the bill would need a good deal of work before it could be turned into law," Bortolotto concluded.

As for when it might possibly be voted on, it's difficult to say. Right now the Italian parliament is busy with the budget law for 2015 and the wi-fi bill won't likely be scheduled for discussion before January next year.

Wi-fi redemption?

If such a bill were ever to pass into law, it would mark a sea-change in the history of Italian wi-fi which for many years was hampered by the so called Legge Pisanu, when public opinion was very sensitive to measures that could be labelled as being 'anti-terrorism'.

Among other things, it stated that anyone willing to offer public internet connections had to ask for government authorisation first, and verify the identity of would-be users through their ID.

This obligation was erased in 2010 for Italian citizens but remained in place for foreigners. It was only a little over a year ago that a change in legislation allowed non-Italian citizens to connect to a public network without showing an ID card or a passport.

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