Free Public Wi-Fi and E-Planning: The Use of Online Planning to Build Better Networked Public Places

Free Public Wi-Fi and E-Planning: The Use of Online Planning to Build Better Networked Public Places

Alex Lambert (School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia), Scott McQuire (School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia) and Nikos Papastergiadis (School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/ijepr.2014040105
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Abstract

Networked media are increasingly pervading public spaces and influencing the way we behave in public. Australian municipalities and cultural institutions have begun deploying free Wi-Fi services hoping they will attract more visitors to public places, aid in curated events, galvanize communities and enhance local economies. In this article we present multi-method research aimed at understanding whether such services can enhance public space and culture, and hence contribute to the public good. We identify multiple forms of positive use which certain kinds of ‘user-centric' services enable. However, many public institutions face problems to do with funding, network models and choice of place which prevent the actualization of these positive outcomes. We consider how e-planning can be mobilized to help such institutions develop virtuous networked public spaces.
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The Value Of Free Wi-Fi

‘Wi-Fi’ refers to the 801.11 technological standards which allow devices to establish wireless networks via the usually unlicensed or class licensed 2.4 GHz spectrum. Since the turn of the millennium these technologies have been globally distributed in affordable wireless routers, PCs and mobile devices. Consequently, Wi-Fi has become a ubiquitous form of local area networking, found in homes, offices, universities and commercial hotspots such as cafés, hotels and airports. Since the early 2000s municipalities in the United States began experimenting with offering free public Wi-Fi as an alternative to incumbent telecommunication monopolies which offer expensive and slow commercial broadband (Crawford, 2013; Gibbons & Ruth, 2006). Consequently places such as parks and squares have become networked, and Wi-Fi is being reconfigured into a digital amenity.

In an era where broadband connectivity is becoming increasingly central to everyday life, public Wi-Fi is coming to be regarded as an essential form of free, inclusive infrastructure, similar to public parks and libraries (Gibbons & Ruth, 2006). For this reason, research into public Wi-Fi projects has focused on their ability to address digital divide issues in local communities (Crawford, 2013; Shaffer, 2007). Yet, there is still relatively little known about how people actually utilize Wi-Fi for community oriented activities and how, more broadly, Wi-Fi influences the social and cultural practices which occur in public spaces (Hampton, Livio, & Goulet, 2010). Moreover, much of the rhetoric around public Wi-Fi suggests that because it is ‘free’ it will necessarily lead to positive social transformations (Schmidt & Townshend, 2003). This tends to neglect the contestation around ‘freeness’ - the fact that ‘freeness’ is itself a cultural construct enmeshed in broader political and technological changes which often carry hidden costs (Lovink & Scholz, 2007).

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