Mobile access has been heralded for quite some time as the holy grail of the Knowledge Society. Anywhere, anytime, with anybody. In the glossy ads from the world's telcos it all looks easy and liberating. Reality, however, is different for the 99+ percent of people who cannot afford the outrageous corporate rates to be online 24/7 with sufficient bandwidth. Enjoying a decent conversation or fast enough file exchange for meaningful collaboration to happen is mostly still limited to the office or home. With laptops becoming ever more available throughout society, the main bottleneck increasingly becomes the access points. Private access through for example UMTS networks being too expensive for most mortal beings, free public access points are becoming a focal point in the battle for a truly democratic access to pervasive communication technologies.
Wifi is one basic technology that can deal with at least part of the public access problematic. Wifi hotspots have a limited range. Many commercial access points are provided by telcos in public places like stations, airports, hotels, and cafes, like Starbucks. This is nice for occassional usage or when the boss pays, but extensive use is still prohibitively expensive for many. As a result, these paid access-models are increasingly failing.
There are many efforts to create networks of free hotspots, for example Wi-Fi-FreeSpot , amongst many, many others. However, the problem is that many of these hotspots are of low quality, depend on volunteer contributions, or are in less-interesting locations. One major boost to address these issues would be if providing free public access can be soundly integrated into the business models of commercial organizations, like cafes and restaurants. Examples of such business models are slowly emerging.
A very nice case is provided by Free-Hotspot.Com. Today, I am in Brussels without Internet access at home or in the office. As I really needed to be online, I was looking at the options. Through Free-Hotspot, I found that Le Drink, a great, smoke-free cafe on Place Brouckère, one of the liveliest places in Brussels, is a certified member of this Wifi network. Thinking it really to good to be true, I left my skepticism home, and took the metro. I have spent a great afternoon, with good food, beer, and coffee, jazzy music, while answering e-mail, browsing the Web, and skyping with a colleague in Australia. I found a much-improved office, my food bill pays their wifi-bill, and I for sure will be back. If that ain't a sustainable business model... :-)