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Future

Free WiFi For All? Cities (And Nations) Making Universal Digital Access A Right

Whether it's to bridge the socioeconomic digital divide or to attract tourists, foreign businesses and digital nomads, the time may be ripe to offer free internet access across society. Here are some of those leading the push.

a photo of a man on his laptop overlooking a city

Online editing with a view

Alidad Vassigh and Irene Caselli

For years, certain big cities have been wooing tourists and remote workers by offering free WiFi hotspots to help find the best restaurants or connect for meetings from a park bench. This month, Mexico City won the Guinness World Record for most free WiFi hotspots in the world, with 21,500.


But city legislators from Mexico's ruling party want to take the next big step, making Internet access a legal right for everyone in the city, the El Heraldo de México daily reported. Temístocles Villanueva, a member of the city parliament from the Morena party, led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, proposed a motion to have universal digital access written into Mexico City's charter.

Mexico City total ambitions

While approximately nine out of ten people in Europe and the United States are able to connect to the Internet, less than half of Mexico's population has access to it, with the digital divide worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Villanueva told El Heraldo that his initiative "leads us to harmonize a great many laws so Internet connection becomes a right" regardless of your ability, or willingness, to pay for a connection. This, he said, would also force companies to "improve" the quality and speed of their home services, if WiFi were free outside.

This is just the latest municipal effort that began when Tel Aviv became the first major city in the world to launch a scheme that offered free WiFi back in 2013. Ron Huldai, who's been the city's mayor since 1998, said at the time that the project turned Tel Aviv into "the startup city of the start-up nation."

Yet, criticism came in quickly, with daily Haaretz soon publishing a story about spotty access, missing access points and slow downloads. Further criticism came surrounding the safety of the system after a hacker took over the network in 2016 to show that he could.

photo of a sign for free WiFi on a wall

Free WiFi everywhere

Paul Hanaoka via Unsplash

Attracting digital nomads

But despite the complaints, free WiFi is becoming increasingly common in major cities. Moscow has a wide network of free hotspots (it came in second in the Guinness World Record), as do Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Barcelona. Last year, the city council of Sydney decided to go ahead with the decision to implement free WiFi too, which already works in Perth, with a limit of 2G of downloads per day.

Several other destinations implemented free internet access for foreigners who work remotely. For example, the Portuguese island of Madeira is trying to position itself as a hotspot for digital nomads and has created a Digital Nomad Village with free WiFi and free office space. The island of Bali in Indonesia has also recently set up free WiFi in 55 villages to allow digital nomads to set up shop there.

the Uber or Airbnb of citizenship,

There are also entire countries that are combining nationwide free WiFi with e-visas or loose immigration policies to attract digital nomads. Estonia, for example, has had free WiFi for many years now, including in the capital city Tallinn, and it has recently launched a digital nomad visa to attract foreign workers who want to establish themselves in the country.

If we consider free WiFi a perk for tourists and digital nomads, some techies are trying to turn the entire concept upside down: authors like Lauren Razavi are advocating for the creation of what they call "an internet country." The idea is to create a software platform for digital nomads, "the Uber or Airbnb of citizenship," but would still need on-the-ground services like hospitals, schools, public transport and … WiFi hotspots. So even in a digital nomad's futuristic dream, free hotspots are the first step to take.

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