Monday, October 21, 2013

Wi-Fi access

Public Wi-Fi and its issues. Image source: The Guardian/Sipa Press/Rex Features

One of the problems that arises with issues such as wi-fi and the easier facilitation of internet access it affords is the disparity in access to such services and by extension, the content they provide. For low income earners, the cost of broadband internet is beyond their budget. However, a progressive initiative in Bury, Manchester, has attempted to address this issue by providing what is thought to be the UK's first free community wi-fi.

The partnership between Broad Oaks sports college, Bury council and Pennine Telecom, offers free wi-fi to low income families, and the network has now been extended to one square mile, providing the East Bury community with free internet. The scheme was originally initiated to help disadvantaged students at the school. The Guardian cites that in 2008, 40% of the schools population did not have broadband internet at home, and quotes the school deputy head, Chris Owen, as noting that these students were at a disadvantage, "They couldn't access the same learning resources that other students they were in competition with were accessing."

According to The Guardian
The network, simply named "Internet", requires no login, has no time limit and can support 400 users at a time. It is currently receiving 200 users daily, and can be accessed from mobile devices and tablets as well as desktop computers and laptops.
The community has welcomed the free internet, noting the cost saving benefits, its speed, and its multiple uses from studying and education, to job hunting, planning travel routes, and social media.

Also in the UK however,  recent research has indicated that more than half of free public Wi-Fi provide no filters to block adult content, allowing access to pornography, and websites that contain adult, weapons and drug related material. According to a recent article published in The Guardian,
The research examined 179 locations across Birmingham, Manchester and London, including cafes, restaurants, shops, hotels and public spaces, and found that 51% of free Wi-Fi hotspots allowed unfiltered access to adult content.  
One in three UK cafes and restaurants, for instance, have no filtering in place to protect children and prevent their access to pornography, while a further 20% failed to restrict customer access to online sex dating sites, such as
According to the vice-president of product strategy and business development at AdaptiveMobile, Graeme Coffey, the past years have seen two trends which has inadvertently enabled greater access to content that is inappropriate for minors, these being the increase in public Wi-Fi and increased access to Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices:
In the last two years there have been two convergent trends: a big increase in public wifi or ‘hospitality Wi-Fi’, and greater access to smartphones, gaming consoles and tablets with a wifi capability, the kind of device a child could have. 
Whilst hotels are predominantly private places, where a ‘no filtering’ policy may be appropriate, hotel lobbies, caf├ęs and restaurants are more public and the content policy should reflect this. It is certainly neither a simple nor a ‘one size fits all’ matter.
The Guardian cites Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at the Plymouth Business School, as noting the importance of the need for filters in public space, “Having filters in public spaces is just as important as other restrictions such as the smoking ban and modesty covers on adult magazines...But simply having a filter doesn't necessarily mean everything is protected."

Of all the Wi-Fi spots in public spaces which were reviewed, it was public places such as train stations, and Government owned spaces, that had the highest amount of filters that blocked adult content.

Both these stories demonstrate the issues surrounding access to Wi-Fi and the complexities of its availibility in public spaces. On the one hand, we have an entire community provided with free Wi-Fi in an effort to bridge the inequality, and socio-economic divide that characterises the area. It benefits the community by allowing members greater access to educational resources and online services which were previously unavailable or at least very limited.

The other story reminds us that there are other issues that must be considered when discussing public Wi-Fi. The increasing number of Wi-Fi hotspots, paired with the rising numbers of Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices, combined with no consistent approach to filtering and content blockers, creates a situation where inappropriate content can be accessed by children and youth. Being in public space, this raises question about which publics are being considered, and suggests that the complexities of Wi-Fi and mobile device access, both good and bad need more attention.

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