Wi-Fi as Public Utility or Public Park? Metaphors for Planning Local Communication Infrastructure

26 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2009 Last revised: 23 Dec 2013

See all articles by Alison Powell

Alison Powell

London School of Economics & Political Science; University of Oxford - Oxford Internet Institute

Date Written: January 21, 2009


The spaces of cities are increasingly virtual, and planners and managers are faced with the challenge of integrating the infrastructure that supports these spaces into their existing city plans. In North America, many community and municipal Wi-Fi networks developed as a response to limited public provision of internet access, suggesting that such local networks - as provided by local governments or community organizations - should be considered public services. This paper argues that the metaphors for understanding public service communication networks should be expanded from the metaphor of the "public utility" that understands Wi-Fi as similar to water or electricity, to include the "public park" metaphor that introduces the potential for the internet to act as a public good, while acknowledging that Wi-Fi zones may depend on limited bandwidth resources. Although limited, these resources provide potential for applications that increase public benefit, such as location-specific services or community media. Additionally, the "public park" metaphor describes how Wi-Fi networks can operate as playful spaces inspiring greater innovation. Case studies of a municipal and community Wi-Fi network from Canada demonstrate how such metaphors provide ways of framing the potential outcomes of public Wi-Fi services. This paper discusses how the "public service" and "public park" metaphors for Wi-Fi networking can be applied to Fredericton's Fred-eZone project, North America's first municipally owned free Wi-Fi network, and Montreal's volunteer-designed Ile Sans Fil project.

Keywords: Networks, Wi-Fi, government, infrastructure, metaphors

Suggested Citation

Powell, Alison, Wi-Fi as Public Utility or Public Park? Metaphors for Planning Local Communication Infrastructure (January 21, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1330913 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1330913

Alison Powell (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science ( email )

London WC2A 2AE
United Kingdom

University of Oxford - Oxford Internet Institute ( email )

1 St. Giles
University of Oxford
Oxford OX1 3PG Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire OX1 3JS
United Kingdom

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