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Views on Wi-Fi's future

We’ve been speaking to critical friends about free Wi-Fi, asking them where they see opportunities for intervention and what they would like to see change.

Three of those conversations were with Steph Alarcon, Ben Laurie and Tom Taylor. Our conversations covered different aspects of Wi-Fi, focusing largely on how the technical standards will or should evolve.

Wi-Fi is hard to measure

“Research restrictions make this work difficult.” - Steph Alarcon

Researching Wi-Fi is hard, and it's likely to get harder. Changing competition, erratic regulation, and shifts in technology policy have led to situations where providers don’t report performance or coverage consistently. That makes understanding how things are working now extremely difficult.

Screenshot from Think Broadband showing connection speed tests

Wi-Fi speeds in Bethnal Green (Image: Screenshot/Think Broadband)

The inability to truly measure and understand performance means that consumer protection in the area is weak. Unequal performance is rife, and gaps between the advertised speed and the actual speed can be extreme.

New networks create new problems

“Longer term I think 5G and Wi-Fi will converge…so free Wi-Fi will become more and more pointless. But maybe this is a bit optimistic.” - Tom Taylor

Tom and Ben’s responses pointed to the issue of coverage in different ways. Rollout of 4G and 5G networks might increase coverage for things like mobile phones, but lots of the products that connect to the internet today do so over Wi-Fi, not over cellular networks.

These are also centralised networks. With ubiquitous coverage, problems of tracking, anonymity and data collection then become more extreme. Ben said that if we only have these networks to rely on, people will have to "cripple their user experience" to maintain their privacy.

“It’s going to be difficult to live without Wi-Fi. What happens when you go to a rural location, will you be a sub-citizen?” - Ben Laurie

Ben and Steph also pointed out that the way people use these networks might be changing. The UK will soon begin to review – and potentially revise – EU consumer law, which at the moment protects things like the right to tether.

“We live in a regulatory environment when we can see the ingredients list for food, but we’re not able to compare providers for internet connection.” - Steph Alarcon

Whether supported by other networks or not, Wi-Fi remains a problem in the near term. Focusing solely on 5G rollout will increase the power imbalance between people or regions who can afford faster connections and those who can’t.

Advert from Make the Air Fair

Three has launched a campaign calling for a review on EE and BT's "spectrum dominance" (Image: Screenshot/Make the Air Fair)

Wi-Fi as a public utility

All three suggested that making Wi-Fi a public utility would start to relieve the tension between how it's operated and how people use it.

“Wi-Fi should be free everywhere and this should be mandated in law” - Tom Taylor

Wi-Fi is the connecting tissue between lots of things people own. People who use it should be able to expect that it will be safe, that it will respect their privacy and provide them with a good user experience.

“I worry about dead spots. Like water or electricity, I think Wi-Fi will be sufficient that most people will have it. It’s a public service, but maybe not delivered by government.” - Ben Laurie

Other utilities are subject to strict regulation that protects consumers and demands a standard of service. These are things Wi-Fi should be subject to, so it can be made safer to use and easier to improve. The challenge is in understanding how those consumer protections could also cover state-mandated data capture and use.

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