With Canadians paying some of the highest rates for data on their cellphones around the world, public Wi-Fi has become a popular choice for people as they visit restaurants and coffee shops. They are still, however, a source of confusion and frustration for many users.
Although very few public spots charge their visitors to use the Wi-Fi, most require users to consent and be bound by a service agreement before accessing their networks. This has to do with protection on the part of the business, saying that a user cannot and shall not conduct illegal activities while using the service and that if such activities are performed, the business providing the access shall not be held liable for any legal action that might arise.
Most public Wi-Fi spots bring up the user agreement on a web page you must access via the browser on your mobile device. So you may try to access apps on your smartphone or tablet that don't work right away. That is because the user agreement (shown only in your browser) has not been accepted by you. I have this problem repeatedly at Starbucks. I go to use its app, and my phone defaults to their Wi-Fi. Without going to a web browser first, my phone gets stuck with no access. I often turn the Wi-Fi off completely to get around this problem, using my cellular data plan, and then forget to turn Wi-Fi back on again. It's very frustrating.
Some public access spots, such as Tim Horton's coffee shops, have a feature that allows you to be "remembered" by the network when providing a valid e-mail address. The next time you visit one of its hotspots with a device you've previously connected with, you gain access right away. This is definitely more convenient, but still requires you to sign up and give your e-mail address, something that many people are not comfortable with. Even with the recent CASL (Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation), the one thing that everyone can agree upon is that we don't need any additional unsolicited e-mails in our inboxes.
If our data rates were more reasonable, Canadians might consider dropping the hotspots all together. The U.S., it seems, is actually working towards an arguably better system. A recent Salon.com article points out both the New York and Chicago public library systems allow users to "borrow" Wi-Fi hotspots just as they would check out a book. It's all part of trying to eliminate the digital divide that exists between the haves and have-nots. A recent study on those libraries found 55% of their patrons that use the Internet services do not have broadband access at home. Libraries have really taken on the role of providing public Internet access in both the U.S. and Canada.
The other big issue going on right now in the U.S. (and it is very controversial) is the recent news that Comcast is turning its customers' routers into public Wi-Fi spots. That means if you are a subscriber to its Internet service, other users will be able to surf the web using your router. Comcast says the network is completely separate from your network and that there is no way for outside users to access your computers, but it has left some people feeling a little uneasy. The fact Comcast turned on this feature with 50,000 customers in Houston, Texas without their consent has really turned some heads. Worries about usage slow-down and additional costs have all been favourably addressed by Comcast, but some users are still concerned.
The overall goal here is to provide city-wide Wi-Fi access to everyone at low to no cost. In the information age, it's a dream come true if it can happen everywhere for everyone but we still have a long way to go. For me, providing free open Internet access would be like access to air. It's becoming a situation where it's almost necessary now to keep communication open and our thirst for knowledge quenched. Breathe in - times are changing.