In an ultra connected future, internet access – through public Wi-Fi – is free. This opens up other possibilities, such as free telecommunications through mobile VoIP, unlimited chat and email, access to the internet, among other things.
We are seeing glimpses of this future today. These are extreme cases: the Philippines and India, and New York City – different implementations of free public Wi-Fi, with results that are also worlds apart.
Connection on the Go
There are ideals behind a future where internet connection is free to the public.
For instance, Internet.org – the Facebook-led initiative that brings free internet to select areas in the Philippines and India – wants to connect two-thirds of the population who supposedly do not have access to the internet. While connectivity is limited by speed and bandwidth, there is at least a way to get in touch via text chat. You can even check out your Facebook account, albeit photos don’t always load. With internet for the poorer population as the foremost goal, something like this might be good enough.
On the opposite end is New York City, a stark contrast to the Philippines and India – mere developing nations – a city that is a mecca of consumerism and financial power. LinkNYC was revealed in November 2014. It is an ambitious public Wi-Fi project that promises gigabit speed surfing from 10,000 pillars all over the city, the first of which is expected by the end of 2015. Even without actually being live yet, LinkNYC has already gotten its fair share of criticisms.
Foremost here is that the grandness of the project may be mostly useless. There are no mobile device capable of gigabit speed yet, and the reach is being questioned. Wi-Fi pillars have a 150 feet radius and are to be installed far apart. The Wi-Fi signal also has to deal with buildings and other infrastructural impedance. Will anyone actually be able to use LinkNYC? That is yet to be seen.
In both cases, data security is an issue. With unfettered access for everyone, you are also lending access to hackers and other mischief makers.
For Internet.org, this might not be much of an issue for its users. The slow connection can be frustrating. And, it’s doubtful if people who do use this service have attached banks and other security-sensitive services to their phones and mobile devices. When the service is basic, user vulnerabilities are also arguably basic.
The local service providers of Internet.org may be the more vulnerable security targets. Malicious elements can use the connection to infiltrate their systems.
It’s different with New York. At the Big Apple, there is a big fruit to bite; and hackers and digital mischief doers might not be able to resist. After all, in a metropolitan city like New York, life is fast; and mobile devices and Wi-Fi offer conveniences. Devices that connect to the internet may also connect to online banking, cloud services, work and mobile VoIP.
Where the city offers may opportunities through public Wi-Fi, it also opens up venues for malicious infiltration. Public Wi-Fi in a city like New York can be a boon or a bane – depending on what it is used for, who uses it, and the level of security implemented by both the user and the network provider.
Protecting the System and Providing the Service
This does not mean that free public Wi-FI, as a municipality- or national government-led service, should be abandoned altogether. Whether it’s in a developing country or a metropolitan city, the importance of securing networks and systems to ensure consistent network performance, and user and provider system and data security should be given focus, before and during implementation of free public Wi-Fi.
Basics here are firewalls and other security measures. Likewise, network performance and call monitors, such as VoIP Spear and its carrier level plans, should be implemented across all endpoints. It is important to keep all connection points tracked for unusual activities. This way, dips and lags in network performance can be examined and addressed.
A Mobile Future
New York, the Philippines and India are just the beginning. Internet.org is set to expand its implementation and reach out to more developing countries. LinkNYC, on the other hand, is an advertiser-supported project. Thus, it won’t cost New Yorkers a single cent. If successful, it could set off similar projects in other US & Canadian cities.
This presents exciting possibilities. For developing countries, with proper implementation and more generous bandwidth allotment, free internet can mean a way to move up in the economic totem pole. A lot more people have access to digital information and online services, which can then lead to learning and jobs.
New York, on the other hand, can set the pace for the rest of the world. If it gets this right – ironing out all the kinks, monitoring and securing its networks and systems, and making this a beneficial advertising venue for businesses – it could be the precedent to a more global implementation of free public Wi-Fi.
Mobile VoIP on the back of public Wi-Fi may represent the biggest challenge to the traditional wireless operators. Google announced in the US a service called Project Fi – that is already combining secured Wi-Fi public access and wireless operators networks when off Wi-Fi access. This in turn is enhancing connectivity and reducing costs.
All of these may render many services we have today as obsolete. It is certain, evolution will continue. As long as there is a fit between the target audience and the supporting businesses, free Wi-Fi is a viable public service. And it has begun changing the way we connect on-line.
Matt Larson is a big fan of public Wi-Fi and mobile VoIP. Without these technologies, he wouldn’t get to explore the world while being on call and on top of business. He currently writes for VoIP Spear, a global call monitoring service provider.