Better public Wi-Fi in Australia? Let’s send a signal



This article is by Ian McShane, senior research fellow at the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis You may have seen recent reports that London’s Oxford Street has the greatest density of Wi-Fi in Europe – with a quarter of that being complimentary – and almost a third of Wi-Fi hotspots in the US are free.

In 2011 there were around 75,000 hotspots across the US out of 300,000 worldwide, a figure set to quadruple by 2015. New York City has even turned payphones into public Wi-Fi hotspots.

The public Wi-Fi landscape in Australia is comparatively barren, with connectivity provided by libraries and a few other public sites, and “Pri-Fi” (commercially-provided Wi-Fi) of variable quality and capacity available in some shopping centres and cafes.

The lack of Wi-Fi infrastructure in Australian cities stands in stark contrast with the uptake of smartphones by Australian consumers. As Google reported this year, almost two thirds of Australians now own internet-enabled smartphones. Local councils have taken few initiatives in this area, sticking to their traditional role of providing physical infrastructure such as community facilities and local roads.

Nor have major sporting events spurred the development of metro Wi-Fi networks in Australia, as the 2012 Olympic Games did in London and the 2011 Rugby World Cup in Wellington and Auckland. Outside the home, users’ connectivity options are mostly restricted to commercially-provided 3G and 4G networks.

Comparing mobile data charges across comparable countries is notoriously difficult, but there is some evidence that a steady cost decline over the past decade and a half has levelled out or begun to reverse in Australia.

Why should we be thinking of supplementing commercial networks with public Wi-Fi? A range of rationales are put forward, from equity considerations (enabling universal access to online public services and economic opportunities), to promoting business innovation and civic vitality, to encouraging residents to assist with urban management. And in one sense, the provision of public Wi-Fi by local councils is a natural extension of their existing responsibility for public internet provision, through the municipal public library network.

Home and away
Australians are highly mobile in another sense, too. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that almost seven million overseas trips are made each year by Australian residents.

An increasing number of Australians, then, are becoming accustomed to the utility and economy of public Wi-Fi elsewhere. These factors are driving expectations that Australian city governments should provide Wi-Fi as part of the basic urban infrastructure. And as the 2012 Victorian local government elections showed, aspiring councillors have begun to take notice, with urban Wi-Fi included in the clutch of campaign promises last year.

The announcement this year of plans by (at last count) four Australian city governments – Adelaide, Parramatta, Wollongong, Melbourne – to roll out public Wi-Fi, though, suggests we may at last be catching up with the rest of the world. Public transport authorities in several parts of the country, too, are following overseas examples by providing free Wi-Fi, on board and around transit stations. Darwin and Brisbane are two examples.

Internationally, municipal governments nominate several rationales for public Wi-Fi provision, including economic and civic participation, community service provision, social inclusion and urban management. Examples of robust evaluation of local public Wi-Fi, though, are difficult to find in the literature.

Why not Australia, then?
Why does Australia compare so poorly with other countries in this area, particularly given our highly urbanised population? Our demographic and spatial patterns are a major reason for the lag, along with the structure of Australian government. Australia’s vast distances and relatively small and unevenly distributed population have long posed challenges for infrastructure provision in telecommunications, utilities and transport.

National and state governments have characteristically stepped in to overcome market failure and promote equity between cities and the bush. This role was supported for much of the history of Australian government by a broad consensus in favour of state intervention and the benefits of owning public assets.

Deregulation and public divestment of telecommunications in the late 20th century yielded mixed results, and, as many commentators have noted, the Australian government’s decision to build the National Broadband Network (NBN) reflects a return to earlier thinking.

Correspondingly, local government jurisdictions in Australia are comparatively “weak” and highly uneven in their size and capacities. Australian local governments have limited fiscal powers and responsibilities for public service provision, especially public utilities. Internationally, local utility companies – with adaptable infrastructure and business processes – have been in the vanguard of local broadband network provision.

The move of municipal governments into network building and fixed line and Wi-Fi broadband provision, though, has been controversial on several continents. Lobbied heavily by incumbent telcos, a number of US state governments from Arkansas to Wisconsin have passed legislation to limit the activities of city authorities in this area.

The wave of public Wi-Fi development in US cities, flowing from the uptake of the 802.11x Wi-Fi protocols (the international wireless local area network standard) by computer manufacturers, produced some successful and sustainable ventures, but also business failures and resident opposition.

Pro-market enthusiasts interpreted the troubles as symptomatic of the underlying failure of public broadband. Innovation specialists advance a more sophisticated interpretation in arguing a role for the “experimental state” in this period of fundamental economic transformation driven by digital technologies.

Similar regulatory and legislative action has occurred across Europe. In 2012 the privatised state corporation British Telecom and its major competitor Virgin Media took legal action against the City of Birmingham to thwart its proposed investment in a local fibre network. The network was a key element in the city’s plans to regenerate declining inner urban areas, as well as a response to concerns over the persistence of under-serviced areas in the UK’s second largest city.

Rules and regulations
None of the Australian councils currently contemplating public Wi-Fi have proposed following the entrepreneurial path of several US city governments and setting up as commercial broadband providers.

The City of Burnie, Tasmania, remains the exception in the Australian municipal broadband landscape, having spun a commercial internet service provider (ISP) off its own pioneering fibre and wireless network developments in 2007.

The regulatory and legal uncertainties around public provision are probably sufficient to deter many city authorities. Perhaps foremost here is awareness that the purchase price of the licensed spectrum in which mobile phone companies operate is so high that neither the telcos nor Australian government would tolerate competition from a public agency. The cost of service provision is also a significant issue for cash-strapped local authorities.

A paper launched earlier this month on Wi-Fi in public places produced by the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES) revealed that the costs of existing Australian ventures ranges from A$6,000 to A$2 million.

The City of Geelong’s refusal to release the cost of public Wi-Fi provision in its waterfront precinct points to the sensitivity of this issue. But recent developments in commercial mobile service provision suggest that the rivalrous relationship between public and private is being reconsidered.

In several parts of the globe, communication infrastructure companies are subsidising the construction of public Wi-Fi networks by city governments so that data services can be offloaded from increasingly congested commercial networks, giving priority to voice services.

So, if you can’t get a satisfactory mobile signal in Martin Place or Collins Street during peak hour, perhaps you should lobby the Sydney or Melbourne city councils, as well as your mobile phone provider.

Ian McShane receives funding from the ARC. This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article. Image credit: mrkathika, Creative Commons

The Conversation


  1. “….but there is some evidence that a steady cost decline over the past decade and a half has levelled out or begun to reverse in Australia.”

    More than some evidence. It’s pretty clear that it’s reversing considerably. For example, Optus mobile broadband 12 month contract: last year 15GB = $55 per month, now 10GB = $60 per month.

    • “….but there is some evidence that a steady cost decline over the past decade and a half has levelled out or begun to reverse in Australia.”

      Basically spectrum is not cheap. When you run out of it, the only way to increase capacity is to build more infrastructure.

      One base station can cover a significant are when traffic demand is light, but there is a limit to how much traffic a single base can carry. Once it is used up you need to build more base stations in the same geographic area. The problem with this is that they interfere with each other. If you can get away with building 4 times the number of bases for double the capacity you are doing well. Do you see the inherent problem with this? Each increase in capacity comes at four times the cost as the last one but only serves double the number of customers.
      The solution is to increase the cost of service to:
      A/ cover the increase in cost per unit of capacity
      B/ Reduce the demand for increased capacity by limiting demand through the price structure.

      The cost per unit of wireless data has reversed direction and that is set only to become more and more painful as time goes on.

  2. One factor that wasn’t presented which I would consider pivotal is the tremendous cost of data in Australia compared with most other developed nations. Essentially uncapped contracts with municipal governments in other countries means both that the impact of ‘leechers’ isn’t a significant cost burden, but also that the prevalence of that kind of activity is essentially nonexistent because they can happily download as much as they want at home. Certainly, networks can be designed to limit performance per connection and exclude certain packets, but that won’t stop encrypted traffic and even a throttled connection can draw large volumes of data over the course if a day. Limiting connections to the point where downloads are too slow to be worthwhile will limit utility of the service to the point where even 3g mobile network performance will exceed it anyway.

    As long as onerous network data charges exist in this country the idea of public wifi is really an unattainable pipe dream, I believe.

  3. the main street and mall of wollongong has public wifi.but its pretty much pointless because of speed.did a speedtest at 8am this morning while waiting for a bus it was 1mbps down 1mbps up.tried to watch youtube but couldnt.took forever to load a web page using galaxy s4 month that part of the gong is supposed to go live for the NBN,just hope the council upgrades to that.i think free public wifi at decent speeds might help more ppl visit the region.

  4. i live in london, go to oxford st 3-4 times a month. Still use 3g. Its a hassle having to sign in every time to use wifi when 3g works perfectly fine. Also its not in all spots, i had a friend come over from Australia and we had to go around searching for a signal.

Comments are closed.