PAWS: Public Access Wifi Service

PAWS: Public Access Wifi Service

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Digital inclusion is important for social equality to ensure access to the many benefits the Internet offers. These benefits include access to support services and information, cheaper goods, and online communities; and as novel services continue to become available (i.e. the Internet of Things) the consequences of exclusion will continue to grow. The digitally excluded are often elderly, socially excluded, and/or economically deprived. These individuals commonly have low levels of physical mobility (e.g. lack a car) and  high levels of reliance on support services, and so have a great deal to gain from Internet access. At the societal level, alongside issues of social justice and equality, the consequences of digital exclusion are economically inefficient offline access to services and a reduction in participation in the Digital Economy (DE).

Whilst amongst the elderly the primary exclusionary factor is cultural (commonly that they do not perceive value in it), amongst younger demographics who want to be online, affordability is cited as the primary barrier. Current Government approach’s to addressing digital exclusion address infrastructural barriers without addressing economic ones. Pricing is left to the market. However we believe that leaving connectivity for all to be governed by market economics is a major impediment to achieving the full benefits of a DE, and that basic Internet access should be made freely available to all due to its societal benefits.

Although there is no single ‘magic bullet’ to remove socio-economic barriers, there are infrastructural solutions that could drastically reduce them. Our proposal is a first step in this direction: a programme of research seeking to inform and develop technology enabling free Internet connectivity for all, paving the way to new access models. We propose PAWS (Public Access WiFi Service), a new Internet access paradigm based on Lowest Cost Denominator Networking (LCD-Net) – a set of techniques making use of the available unused capacity in home broadband networks. Case study deployment of this technology within an urban area of multiple deprivation will be underpinned by a programme of social research which will conduct a longitudinal multi-method assessment of participants’ current practices and subsequent experiences of this technology.

PAWS takes the approach of community-wide participation, where broadband customers can volunteer to share their high-speed broadband Internet connection for free with fellow citizens. Initiatives in the past have looked at sharing a user’s broadband Internet connection via their wireless connection . Although these methods are gaining worldwide acceptance, they are usually viewed as an extension of a user’s paid service – PAWS will extend this to support free access by users.

The project is designed to complement the recent growth of smartphones, as it is envisaged that it is through these devices, and to a lesser degree other common WiFi-enabled devices like tablets, laptops and TVs, that the digitally excluded are beginning to access the Internet. Data is limited on this recent phenomenon but it is known that 32% of 16-24 year olds and 23% of Socio-Economic Group C2DE now have smartphones. This proportion is growing rapidly: in both groups 65% obtained their phone in the last 12 months [12]. . WiFi-enabled Pay-As-You-Go smartphones are now available for £50 and as prices continue to fall it is likely that an increasing proportion of the 86% of C2DE individuals who already own a mobile will switch to a smartphone. PAWS would further accelerate uptake by providing a free, network-independent means of Internet communication.

Take a look at the PAWS Video

Partners: Nottingham City Council, Sam Knows, BT

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