It’s something that’s been on Richard Guiney’s radar for a while now.

The CEO of DublinTown, the city-centre business organisation, has been working on a concrete plan to bring free public wifi back to the city. Really, he says, it’s a no-brainer.

“If Dublin wants to be taken seriously as a tech-savvy, progressive city, then not having wifi makes it quite difficult to justify being at the forefront,” he says. “I think it’s something we just need to do.”

A Service Restored

The city’s first foray into public wifi didn’t exactly pan out as planned.

Back in October 2012, Dublin City Council signed a contract with Spanish company Gowex and in January 2013 rolled out a public wifi scheme across 12 city-centre locations.

It went okay until July 2014, when Gowex filed for bankruptcy. In May 2015, the council exercised its contract break clause, with the service remaining in place until December.

That seemed to mark the end of the city’s brief encounter with free public wifi, but, as Guiney tells it, the conversation continued. “The council did their scheme, that didn’t work out too well, and then we were having chats with the council so it was reactivated this year.”

What’s now being proposed by DublinTown is a free public wifi service confined to the business group’s district in the city centre.

This stretches from St Stephen’s Green to Parnell Square, between Amiens Street and Capel Street on the northside, and South Great George’s Street and Dawson Street on the southside. To begin with, Guiney says targeting the busiest areas makes sense.

“We should tender for the highest footfall [for wifi]. By a long shot that’s O’Connell Street, Henry Street and Grafton Street,” he says. “We would look at those in the initial stage and then we’d move citywide.”

The return of free public wifi is in its earliest stages. Currently, DublinTown is teasing out issues such as cost and location. And how it will address a little thing known as data mining.

Mine Your Own Business

Data mining or data harvesting is a danger where free public wifi is concerned.

It’s often part of the pay-off for the large companies that supply the service: in return they are allowed to track people who use the service, to know what they are using their devices for, and when and where they’re using them. And then they can sell this data back to the local government or business group.

Back in 2014, American journalist Evan Schuman raised concerns about New York City’s plans to roll out public wifi.

It’s tricky for the service user, says Schuman. “The caution, the change in behaviour, is for the consumer. Riding a public Wi-Fi with thousands of strangers is a problematic security practice,” he said, in an email.

Addressing these concerns, says Guiney of DublinTown, will be key when bringing potential service providers to the table.

“That technology is all available and obviously people try to sell you that but I actually don’t know if we want to get into that level of detail,” he says. “We don’t need to be recording the data.”

The argument is that if people felt that Big Brother was watching them constantly, that would be a disincentive to using the service, he says.

“By the time we get to speaking to potential providers that’s key,” he says. “We don’t want that kind of data harvesting across a boundary and into being invasive, where people would feel uncomfortable.”

Rob Kitchin, a smart-cities expert at Maynooth University, says that there are EU laws regarding data protection, stipulating what companies can and can’t do with our data.

Typically, companies will “anonymise” the data, said Kitchin, who has authored a paper that touches on the subject: Getting Smarter About Smart Cities: Improving Data Privacy and Data Security.

“The key thing is personal identifiable information and that’s the critical thing that people are trying prevent,” he says. “You could put that into the procurement package that that’s what you wanted to do.”

One of the difficulties with smart-city technology is the “notice of consent”, says Kitchin. In other words, seeking permission for, say, every single camera that might be watching citizens.

One of the solutions is that the city effectively takes responsibility for managing its citizen’s rights. “They [the city] would write that into a procurement document saying ‘This is what data you can track, this is what you can do with the data’ and so on,” he says. “Now, that might affect the pricing on what you get back.”

Kitchin says that while we’re always tracked anyway on the websites we use, through website trackers, when it comes to public wifi data mining there’s still an onus on the city to protect its citizens.

Transparency is key, he says. “Cities are getting wise to some of the privacy and security risks around them and tightening them up. All you’re really asking companies to do is comply with the legislation and with information practice principles.”

Free Wifi, Goodwill

Of course, a service provider might be willing to supply the service for free and not want to mine the data. This might help a company in the long term, says journalist Schuman.

“If they don’t sell the data and if they don’t charge for the service, their compensation is goodwill, marketing,” he says. “If a lot of people use the service and love it, they would be far more inclined to use that company for fee services.”

When service providers come to the table to pitch for Dublin’s free public wifi, is such an outcome possible? Guiney thinks it is.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” he says. “The reason that people would harvest that data, and I know this does happen elsewhere, is to gather information and use it for commercial purposes and not actually pay for the city wifi. I’m not interested in that to be honest.”

Rolling Out

The extent of the new service depends on demand, and the number of wifi “beacons” will depend on the length of the street, says Guiney.

Guiney says that to provide the entire DublinTown district with free public wifi could cost in the region of €300,000. Henry Street alone could cost €10,000 due to its size.

These are just estimates for the moment, he says. But the ball has started rolling.

“We’ve met with one or two people just to chat about the feasibility,” says Guiney. “We would hope to be piloting this next year.”

Moving into 2018, he says, the service would hopefully grow, with more and more streets put on the free-wifi map.

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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