Whilst at the All Hands Digital Economy Conference, I met Arjuna Sathiaseelan who told me about a new project called “PAWS: Public Access WiFi Service“. It sounds quite interesting and I might be joining the team in the next few months. The project poster is here : de2012
The main motivation behind the Public Access WiFi Service (PAWS) is to enable digital inclusion, which is important in the interest of social equality to ensure access to everyday services and benefits that are enjoyed by the majority, and ensure that all members of society are able to participate fully in the Digital Economy. Not only do the digitally excluded in societies currently not have access to these benefits, alternative provision of public services is a costly endeavour. While amongst the elderly the primary factor in digital exclusion is cultural (commonly that they do not perceive value in it), amongst younger demographics who want to be online, affordability is cited as the primary barrier, named by over 40% of digitally excluded 16-44 year olds. Most digital inclusion initiatives assume affordable broadband access, indeed the commercial imperative at the moment is to convert existing users to higher speeds, rather than deploy more widely; however we believe the notion of connectivity for all being governed by the simple market economics is a major impediment to achieving the benefits of a Digital Economy, and that basic Internet should be made available to all for societal benefit; a sentiment recently expressed by Berners-Lee. Although there is no single ‘magic bullet’ to remove socio-economic barriers, there are infrastructural solutions that could drastically reduce them. Our proposal is a first step in this direction: a feasibility study to establish technical requirements and identify the current practices and needs of the digitally excluded. Following successful demonstration, we hope that government policy can be nudged to support industry uptake leading to national deployment.
Our proposed programme of research seeks to inform and develop technology enabling free Internet connectivity for all, paving the way to new access models. We propose PAWS (Public Access WiFi Service), a new Internet access paradigm based on Lowest Cost Denominator Networking (LCD-Net) – a set of techniques making use of the available unused capacity in home broadband networks and allowing Less-than-Best-Effort access to these resources (lower quality service compared to the standard Internet service offered to paid users). Case study deployment of this technology will be underpinned by a programme of social research which will establish a socio-economic profile of the area, recruit potential participants and, most importantly, conduct a longitudinal multi-method assessment of participants’ current practices and subsequent experiences of this technology.
PAWS takes the approach of community-wide participation, where broadband customers can volunteer to share their high-speed broadband Internet connection for free with fellow citizens. Initiatives in the past have looked at sharing a user’s broadband Internet connection via their wireless connection (for e.g. BT FON). Although these methods are gaining worldwide acceptance, they are usually viewed as an extension of a user’s paid service – PAWS will extend this to support free access by users. As it is essential to ensure that the free user traffic does not impact perceived performance of the bandwidth donor, we will explore the impact of free services available through LBE access (also known as the Scavenger Class) to the network. These methods allow a person to use a shared link without competing for the resources of those who have shared their Internet connection. We will also explore the benefits offered by our proposed method to users and network operators. It is necessary for this work to be conducted ‘in the wild’ as it requires the deployment of technology to end-users, and subsequent assessment of its impact. The project will increase access opportunities, enabling digital inclusion and in turn supporting the UK Government’s ‘digital by default’ programme with its associated cost savings and service improvements”