This white paper examines the transformation of public spaces through free Wi-Fi services offered by Australian cultural institutions and municipalities.

Australian public institutions have been slower to offer free Wi-Fi services compared to their counterparts in Europe and the United States. Nevertheless, public institutions are beginning to discover a variety benefits in offering Wi-Fi. These include: enriching community life; enhancing public safety; providing marketing and communications portals; servicing city employees and sensors; and, most prominently, enhancing local economies by attracting more visitors.

This white paper finds that Wi-Fi services can enhance public spaces by adding to their vibrancy and atmosphere. Wi-Fi services also provide a valuable digital resource for different mobile users, including out-of-office workers and travellers. However, Wi-Fi services should not be launched indiscriminately. Poorly thought out services can also support uses that isolate groups of users and prevent cross-group mingling in public space.

Despite the potential benefits, many public institutions are deterred from offering attractive Wi-Fi services due to cost and a lack of ‘digital culture’ in local government. Institutions are also concerned that next generation mobile broadband services will make Wi-Fi hotspots redundant, a position this report argues against. As online access becomes increasingly integrated into social life, these stances will need to be reconsidered.

This white paper recommends that:

•    The benefits of Wi-Fi in public space are better conveyed to public institutions through educational initiatives.
•    Public institutions consider the different network and business models available to subsidise the cost of a service. In so doing, institutions should be aware of the positive and negative aspects of privatising public space and spectrum, especially when it comes to control over amenities which service the public good.
•    Institutions can learn from successful service models that focus on ‘user-centric’ service and consider the different positive ‘place-attributes’ described in this research.
•    Institutions explore positive models for providing or seeding services that enable cross-group social interactions.

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