EU-wide free WiFi? Please, no...

, by Michal Jarski

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

EU-wide free WiFi? Please, no...
Given that Europeans can now use mobile data like at home, free WiFi is now mainly relevant to those who cannot afford a mobile data package.

It has been quite some time already since I started disliking the idea of “free WiFi for all”. Not because I am anti-socialist, or anti-leftist, but because the capacity and performance of public free WiFi networks is much lower than that of mobile networks. Moreover, public WiFi networks are much less secure and much more vulnerable to attacks aiming at stealing sensitive data [1] and taking control of your device(s) [2], or even the whole network [3].

With the roaming charges having been abolished in June 2017, it should be quite clear that mobile networks are the future of European connectivity. Roam Like At Home (RLAH) is here, so everywhere you go within the European Economic Area (EEA), you are entitled to use your home data packages free of charge. To understand why it works that way, while it hadn’t been so for such a long time, let’s go about two years back in time.

Some historical data

It’s November 2015, some days after passing the EU Regulation 2015/2120, whose goal is to abolish roaming charges in the European Union. It took the European institutions two years to pass a regulation after the European Commission proposal to create a Digital Single Market and abolish all roaming charges in 2013. People across Europe are happy, and cannot wait for when the regulation finally applies in June 2017.

15 June 2017, roaming charges are abolished within the EEA, and the RLAH and Fair Use Policy are launched. One month later, I’m about to go on my first European trip without the need to worry about getting free WiFi access, because as long as I’m in the mobile network reach zone, I have free network access, provided by my mobile network operator. The need for WiFi automatically disappears, as long as I fit within my 4.5GB ‘EU roaming’ bundle, and that’s usually enough for all of my trips abroad so far.

Meanwhile, in May 2017, the European Commission confirms rolling out free public Wi-Fi networks for about 6,000-8,000 areas across Europe by 2020. And that move is not only incomprehensible, but also utterly stupid. Less than a month later, the roaming charges are to be abolished, so why create free public WiFi, while everyone can use their mobile data abroad? After a recent discussion with a friend of mine, I found out that the main argument for creating a free network is to make an Internet connection available for all, even those who cannot afford it. I can partially understand that motive, but from the economic side of the issue, it doesn’t make any sense!

The possible alternative

The plan laid out by the European Commission doesn’t take into account the fact that WiFi can become obsolete within three years’ time. Secondly, the network, which will have to be created anew, most probably will be less efficient and more costly to establish than using the mobile operators’ ‘transmitters’ and airing a free mobile data service, even with a very tight transfer speed cap, for all users across the EU, and paying for the service. The mobile operators are already there, and so is the European Commission’s money, but the WiFi infrastructure is not.

So why reinvent the wheel, when both better results can be achieved (as such a WiFi network would have worse bandwidth) and the cost of creating such a system can be drastically lowered? And it’s not even taking into account the fact that such a service could be considered ‘useful’ only by people who can’t afford a mobile network bundle. In all honesty, not having access to a free WiFi might be the least of the problems they face. Introducing such a network, at a very high cost, wouldn’t make their real problems disappear.

Footnotes

[1] Kevin Gray: Fake Wi-Fi HotSpots: A Criminal’s Tool to Steal from You. Envision IT Solutions. Available at http://blog.envisionitsolutions.com/computer-security-and-fake-wi-fi-hotspots-a-criminals-tool-to-steal-from-you.

[2] Jennifer Schlesinger & Andrea Day: Your smartphone could be hacked without your knowledge. CNBC: 17/6/2016. Available at https://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/17/your-smartphone-could-be-hacked-without-your-knowledge.html.

[3] Lucian Constantin: Hacker shows how easy it is to take over a city’s public Wi-Fi network. PC World: 10/11/2016. Available at https://www.pcworld.com/article/3140627/security/hacker-shows-how-easy-it-is-to-take-over-a-citys-public-wi-fi-network.html.

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