More in­ter­net ac­cess needed for ‘ left-be­hinds’

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Luigi Gam­bardella The au­thor is pres­i­dent of Chi­naEU. He con­trib­uted this ar­ti­cle to the China Watch In­sti­tute, a new think tank plat­form pow­ered by China Daily. The views do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect those of China Daily.

China must bridge dig­i­tal di­vide by mak­ing pub­lic WiFi hotspots more ubiq­ui­tous and ac­ces­si­ble

Sim­i­lar to Europe, free WiFi con­nec­tions are also avail­able in China. In cities and tourist sites, we find free hotspots in ho­tels, pop­u­lar restau­rants and cafes. Air­ports and large train sta­tions in China, too, pro­vide free WiFi, even if only sub­scribers to Chi­nese mo­bile op­er­a­tors can con­nect.

Ac­cord­ing to Wi­man app, China has 681,153 free WiFi hotspots. But the state of New York alone has, ac­cord­ing to Wi­man, more than twice as many free WiFi hotspots: 1,574,124. Yet num­bers are not the real is­sue. The real is­sue is that, in China, hardly any free WiFi hotspot can be found in vil­lages or towns.

This ap­pears to me as a para­dox, as China to­day is the lead­ing coun­try in terms of dig­i­tal in­no­va­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

One would ex­pect China to be lead­ing in terms of free pub­lic WiFi in or­der to set a good ex­am­ple for the rest of the world to fol­low. For the time be­ing, the only Chi­nese ex­am­ple that is re­ferred to in Europe is that of Hong Kong’s free pub­lic hotspots branded “Wi-Fi.HK”, which are avail­able nearly any­where in the spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion. Avail­abil­ity is nev­er­the­less only part of the so­lu­tion. Equally im­por­tant is pub­lic aware­ness. That’s why the Hong Kong au­thor­i­ties have put up posters to raise pub­lic aware­ness, closely linked to which is the need for a com­mon vis­ual iden­tity, al­low­ing vis­i­tors to eas­ily spot free hotspots.

States­men sel­dom ad­mit copy­ing other nations. But I wouldn’t be sur­prised if Hong Kong’s ex­am­ple in­spired Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker’s vi­sion­ary ini­tia­tive of “WiFi4EU” in Septem­ber 2016. The ini­tia­tive is aimed at pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port for pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions that want to in­stall cut­ting-edge WiFi net­works, so lo­cals and vis­i­tors can ben­e­fit.

A com­mon vis­ual iden­tity, too, has been put for­ward and the EC is work­ing on a WiFi4EU sin­gle au­then­ti­ca­tion and mon­i­tor­ing ser­vice. More­over, the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties ben­e­fit­ing from the pro­gram will be en­cour­aged to de­velop and pro­mote their own dig­i­tal ser­vices in ar­eas such as e-gov­ern­ment, e-health and e-tourism through a ded­i­cated app. The aim of pub­lic hotspots goes be­yond pro­vid­ing ac­cess to so­cial net­works.

Dig­i­tal lit­er­acy is in­deed a ma­jor rea­son for the dig­i­tal di­vide. How­ever, it will not suf­fice to teach dig­i­tal-il­lit­er­ate groups, such as the el­derly, to use tablets or smart­phones. They will only em­brace cy­berspace if they see the ben­e­fits — for ex­am­ple, if they re­al­ize how easy it is for them, when con­nected to a hotspot, to ap­ply for ad­min­is­tra­tive doc­u­ments with­out hav­ing to line up in the town hall.

The main ar­gu­ment in sup­port of WiFi4EU is that free WiFi hotspots are a nec­es­sary tool to pro­mote dig­i­tal lit­er­acy among dif­fer­ent age groups of peo­ple that are not pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in be­ing per­ma­nently con­nected to the in­ter­net. There­fore, in his 2016 State of the Union speech, Juncker pro­posed “to equip ev­ery Euro­pean vil­lage and ev­ery city with free wire­less in­ter­net ac­cess around the main cen­ters of pub­lic life by 2020”.

A global ini­tia­tive with a sim­i­lar pur­pose is World WiFi Day, or­ga­nized by the Wire­less Broad­band Al­liance. This sym­bolic ini­tia­tive aims to show­case cur­rent WiFi ini­tia­tives of in­dus­tries and gov­ern­ments to con­nect the un­con­nected and re­mind us that pub­lic WiFi net­works are the most af­ford­able means to the in­ter­net.

But WiFi hotspots will also play a key role in al­low­ing the surge of in­ter­net of things ap­pli­ca­tions. Given that the in­ter­net of things of­ten re­quires seam­less roam­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent hotspots, the in­dus­try play­ers have de­vel­oped Next Gen­er­a­tion Hotspot tech­nol­ogy, based on Pass­pointTM cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to al­low for WiFi roam­ing. A key ad­van­tage of such hotspots, in com­par­i­son with mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, is that WiFi is op­er­at­ing in un­li­censed — and thus free — spec­trum bands.

But for the time be­ing, the dig­i­tal di­vide re­mains the main risk to tar­get. In­deed, while cy­berspace has rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way peo­ple, busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments com­mu­ni­cate and en­gage with one an­other, some sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion are ei­ther ex­cluded from the in­ter­net or can­not en­joy any fruits of tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.

Re­duc­ing the dig­i­tal di­vide is a pri­or­ity for Europe, and poli­cies have been im­ple­mented to bring the “left-be­hinds” on board. Some of these poli­cies may be help­ful to China. The Euro­pean Union and China could there­fore learn from each other and be­come re­li­able partners in this area, too. Let us work to­gether to build an in­clu­sive, fully con­nected dig­i­tal world.

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