Free Wi-Fi Access: An Inalienable Right? - InformationWeek

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Government // Mobile & Wireless
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8/21/2008
11:22 AM
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Free Wi-Fi Access: An Inalienable Right?

It's the dog days of August and travel is at its peak as everyone tries to soak up the last few moments of summer. But, of course, in this era of hyper-connectivity, working never stops completely and in between flights, the checking of e-mails, Web sites, and other stuff on the Internet, is endemic -- as are the groans in those airports where Wi-Fi is only available for a fee.

It's the dog days of August and travel is at its peak as everyone tries to soak up the last few moments of summer. But, of course, in this era of hyper-connectivity, working never stops completely and in between flights, the checking of e-mails, Web sites, and other stuff on the Internet, is endemic -- as are the groans in those airports where Wi-Fi is only available for a fee.I just returned from a trip overseas and spent a lot of time in a lot of different airports. There were lots of signs in almost all the airports touting their Wi-Fi access. And while most of the locations I was in did indeed have Internet access, what the user had to do to get on the Internet varied widely -- from free to lots of money for just a little time.

The airports I was in were not rinky dink by any definition of those terms: Logan International Airport in Boston; John F. Kennedy in New York City; and Ben Gurion International in Tel Aviv. At both the terminals I was at in Logan and JFK, Wi-Fi access was only available for a fee. In Ben Gurion, it was free. I don't think it's my imagination that everyone seemed much happier there, whiling away the time on the Internet while waiting for their flights.

What was frustrating about both Logan and JFK is that their ads in the airport tout their Wi-Fi access but never spell out the fees involved. It's only once you boot up your computer that you're hit with the need to pay if you want to get on the Web, a ride that seems so tantalizingly close at that point. Most people sitting around me at JFK were angry at what felt like deceptive practices and opted not to pay and go on.

Wi-Fi access is beginning to feel like an inalienable right and having to pay for it is feeling more and more like an immoral act. Municipal WiFi has struggled to succeed in many cities but at least in the airports -- the ultimate no-man's land where nearly everyone who is there has paid high fees to get on a plane -- it should be free of charge.

There is talk of providing Internet access on airplanes. American Airlines just launched its inflight broadband service -- but it is charging $12.95 a pop. (Delta and Southwest are also planning on rolling out a similar service.) I for one would rather suffer through as many inflight movies as I can than pay an airline to use the Internet.

It's time these companies saw the Internet for what it has become: a service that merits universal access, at least for those on the road. It's time all travelers were allowed to surf for free.

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