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Search and the City: Comparing the Use of WiFi in New York, Budapest and Montreal

Authors: Forlano, Laura - Yale Law School
Keywords: community wireless networks, municipal wireless networks, wireless fidelity (WiFi),comparative international research, uses of technology and telecommunications
Issue Date: 2009
Series/Report no.: Net Institute Working Paper;09-01
Abstract: Over the past five years, the use of mobile and wireless technology in public spaces of cities around the country has grown exponentially. Recently, cities including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, and Austin have announced plans to build municipal wireless networks. These projects make a number of assumptions about the payoffs of municipal wireless networks without the benefit of research on the communication practices of users. To date, there is little such research. In addition, wireless technology – specifically, wireless fidelity or WiFi -- is often discussed as one of many ways to access the high-speed (broadband) Internet i.e. cable, digital subscriber line (DSL), fiber etc. Thus, there has been little analysis of the ways in which the use of the wireless Internet via WiFi may differ from that of the wireline Internet. In order to understand the potential user patterns that will be observed with respect to emerging technologies, it is necessary to disaggregate research about the various ways of connecting to the Internet.This paper compares the results from a six-month survey of the use of WiFi hotspots in New York, Budapest and Montreal. It is hoped that further analysis of these survey results will contribute to a more acute understanding of the ways in which the user patterns of particular modes of Internet access may differ internationally. The major research questions addressed in this paper are: 1) How is WiFi being used in public spaces, by whom, where, for what purposes?; 2) How does the use of WiFi differ from other communication technology?; and, 3) How is the use of WiFi similar or different across cities internationally? This paper makes the following arguments based on the survey data: first, WiFi is an important factor in attracting people to specific locations; second, the use of WiFi highly localized in that it is often used to search for information relevant to one's geographic location; third, there are significant differences in the way that WiFi is used across a variety of locations including cafes, parks and other public spaces; fourth, at present, WiFi users are, for the most part, young, male and highly educated displaying the characteristics of early adopters of technology; and, fifth, there is a convergence in the ways in which WiFi is used internationally in some respects, however there are also important differences in the reasons for these uses as well divergence in other respects.These findings may have an important impact in shaping current discussions municipal wireless networks by helping to identify content, applications and services that can be delivered overmobile and wireless networks. In addition, the answers to these questions are vital to inform a wide variety of legal and public policy issues related to information and communication technologies in addition to being important to the development of content and applications for mobile and wireless technologies. These include policies surrounding municipal wireless networks, spectrum, universal service, community media and network neutrality.
Appears in Collections:NET Institute Working Papers Series

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