Wi-Fi as Public Space

This text has appeared in its entirety on The Public Space Encyclopedia e-publicspace.net, under the title “WiFi as Public Space”, March 2014

The phenomenon that informs this research is the growing importance of wireless communication and it’s infrastructure. We carry around wireless-enabled devices which communicate with each other, with devices in the surroundings and with the central service providers. We rely on this large network of antennas and gadgets to provide us with a seamless flow of information. We call this ‘being’ online or ‘having’ signal. But what we actually mean is that a device is able to receive and extract meaningful information from electromagnetic signals that float in the air, and represent it to us in human-readable form (text, image, sound).
In this text we will consider wireless networks as communication media, and their presence in public space. The proliferation of Wi-Fi access points (Wireless Fidelity, a technology standard for wireless data exchange) forms a distributed network infrastructure. While their signal penetrates both private and public space, the access to the Internet provided by these access points is mostly restricted by passwords. The traffic is also subjected to some limitations by Internet Service Provider (ISP). Home networks secured with WEP and WPA pass-phrases are an absolute majority amongst network signals that can be received in the open space of a street or square. Private communication area is superimposed on public space in this way.
A minority of open wireless networks traverses this space too. We will narrow our analysis here to the latter. While some networks are open simply because their owners chose not to secure them, most of them belong to a private business offering an additional service to their customers. Some networks allow users to connect but demand a registration and possibly an hourly payment to provide Internet traffic. The ones that are free of charge usually come with the ‘Terms of service’ restricting their use. These networks, owned by private individuals, companies or cities offer access to everyone, under certain conditions (see Appendix 1 and 2 for examples of Terms of service and open wireless networks).
Network infrastructure is made of its hardware – servers, LAN cards, cables, switches, routers – and software. Wireless APs act as infill at the edges of this infrastructure, its signals spanning over the last stretch between the infrastructure and the user . Wireless network signals are thus an equal part of the network infrastructure. And while hardware is installed in private space of its user (with the exception of citywide installations), the signals are traversing both private and public space within their reach.
Wi-Fi technology has the capacity to communicate multiple types of media over the same protocol: text, sound, images and video. Its propagation in space and technical accessibility (visibility with Wi-Fi enabled devices) renders its relationship with public space complex and introduces a political aspect to its presence.
One of the most important common parameters for evaluating public space as well as the efficiency of wireless networks is accessibility. Because a wireless network is a way for accessing the Internet, having the possibility to use it or not has a significant impact on one’s interaction with their surrounding. Although Wi-Fi technology is not the only way for achieving this access, and its prevalence is in decline, its signals penetrate public space and render it ‘visible’ to all Wi-Fi enabled devices.
We could argue that network infrastructure contributes to a contemporary ‘agora’ – a place where public life takes place . In ancient Greek times, to have access to the public sphere, one needed to be a free citizen and thus possess a property of his own . Similarly to the ancient Greek model, the access to this augmented ‘agora’ is granted to users with a password – usually the owner and people in some relation to him or her. The public sphere of the Internet is shared between the people with Internet access.
In the past decades, a new trend in governance of urban space has begun to flourish in cities of the western world. The management of urban areas has been entrusted to companies, which charge a tax to local businesses and in return invest in improvement of the trading environment . The Business Improvement District or Area, as this type of programme is called, is notorious for the transfer of authority from politically accountable public officials to unaccountable private actors. Although they exhibit some amenability to the residents through government supervision, at the end of the day BID policy puts public space in private hands. A more extreme privatisation process occurs in commercial zones of city centres throughout Britain, where large portions of public space are rented to private developers on a temporary lease . Anna Minton describes the transformation of public space back to private hands as a process of fearful regulation against certain groups and behaviours (homeless sleeping, youngsters loitering). The space rented falls under the company’s jurisdiction when it comes to the rules of use. Although physically accessible to everyone, restrictions apply as to what can and cannot be done. These restrictions are not prescribed by a democratically elected body but a private company, loosely accountable for its decisions.
Here we find a parallel between the property management in public space and management of publicly accessible wireless networks that appear within it. Wireless networks are rarely open today. The type of security is generally subject to the rule of the neighbour (‘If my neighbour has it, I must have it too’). Thus, in an entourage of open networks, it is likely that there will be even more open networks. Likewise, if existing networks are secured, it is likely that all new networks will be secured too, preventing an even bigger unwanted influx on its bandwidth. Open access is also subject to security and identification concerns. Cases were reported of police wardriving to detect open Wi-Fi and advise owners to shut them down in Austin Texas, USA and Queensland, Australia.
While open wireless networks waned, city-wide wireless network providing projects did not take root either. City-provided wireless Internet access failed to take on a significant role in user connectivity . Because of security and otherwise convenience, users prefer to secure their own network access, occupying public space with wireless signals protected with passwords.
The majority of open wireless networks still found in public space today are provided by businesses such as restaurants, banks, … who offer a connection to their clients or even just passers by. All of these networks require some kind of authentication, and acceptance of the ‘Terms of Service’. If we examine the rules set up here by the network providers (like Mc Donald’s for example) we will find different measures that can be taken to restrict unwanted behaviour and use of traffic (reduction of bandwidth, blocking users). Besides full responsibility assumed by the user, these rules imply a non-commercial use within the limits of legal content. Banning illegal content is not a problem in itself, but with file sharing increasingly restricted by law, such regulations can gain significance in terms of normalisation of Internet traffic.

Some conclusions

Wireless networks are providing access to the Internet much like the streets in privatized public space enable participation in the public sphere. Access is restricted to the persons who are willing to pay or give away enough detail about themselves (when it is required to create an account associated to a private mobile phone number). With large citywide wireless network projects failing and Wi-Fi technology clearly subsiding from being the primary source of Internet connection for portable devices, new technologies for wireless communication take over. Some six years ago, The New York Times was speculating that Wi-Fi telephony (such as voice over IP) might displace the current business model used by cell phone providers . With the release of 3G phones that provide mobile Internet access, taking the usual browser access to a more personal and mobile experience of the Internet, smart phones threaten to render Wi-Fi protocols obsolete. Already today, more than one 1 billion users use their mobile phone as the primary Internet access point . This development is interestingly convenient for ISP providers, whose clients could easily share their Wi-Fi networks with no compensation. Unlike that, cellular networks provided by cell towers and base stations allow users to roam seamlessly between cells, for a fixed price paid by each user. With Wi-Fi technology, neighbours could easily agree to share one connection, but they cannot share a mobile phone contract. The privatisation of wireless connections is analogous to the privatisation trends in public space, which is split amongst private companies. These smaller units allow for easier control mechanisms and facilitate implementation of different restrictions.


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