Taking WiFi public

TAMILNADU, TIRUCHI: 24/07/2016:- Passengers engrossed in checking their mobile phones at Tiruchi Railway Junction where High Speed Wi-Fi facility was launched on Sunday. PHOTO: G_GNANAVELMURUGAN திருச்சி: தமிழ்நாடு: 24-07-2016: திருச்சி ஜங்ஷன் ரயில் நிலையத்தில் தொடங்கப்பட்ட இலவச வை-பை சேவையைப் பயன்படுத்தி, செல்போன்களில் இன்டர்நெட் இணைப்பு பெற்ற மகிழ்ச்சியில் பயணிகள். படம்.ஜி.ஞானவேல்முருகன்.   | Photo Credit: G_GNANAVELMURUGAN

Recent moves by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to pilot public open WiFi hotspots through a nationwide model of pay as you go public data offices (PDOs) is a concerted bid to make cheap, fast, and reliable Internet affordable and accessible. According to the ‘Public WiFi Open Pilot’ document released by TRAI, the PDOs are encouraged to be the kind of spaces where “consumption of data for the average Indian becomes as common as consuming a cup of hot chai.”

In its plans to swiftly facilitate and scale WiFi infrastructure, TRAI is drawing inspiration from the public call office (PCO) telephone booths that spawned a communication revolution in India.

TRAI harbours similar aspirations for PDOs as infrastructural hubs of Internet-related services. It hopes to achieve it by championing an open architecture based WiFi Access Network Interface (WANI) that would allow any entity to easily set up a WiFi access point and sell Internet data in small denominations to interested customers. Adopting a sachet size strategy, WiFi Dabba, a start-up in Bengaluru, has already roped in several bakeries and chaiwallahs in the city to retail its pre-paid tokens ranging from ₹2/100 MB to ₹20/1GB. This makes it worthwhile to interrogate the kind of spaces where PDOs are currently being deployed and their claims to being ‘public’.

Location matters

While making Internet access and use as commonplace as chai is a laudable agenda, how gender inclusive are the spaces that host tea shops and bakeries that are currently emerging as favoured locations to host PDOs? By virtue of the technology, WiFi signals are bounded by their limited geographical reach. This leads to users strategising their use of space and clustering around the strongest coverage area to maximise their signal strength when they stop or ‘hang out’ to use WiFi. However, it is uncommon to find women, even in urban spaces, willing to linger at spaces around the neighbourhood chai tapri or the local bakery — sites that are usually recognised as male hangouts.

Recent campaigns such as the #whyloiter hashtag that spawned both social media and offline spaces attempted to draw attention to the gendered nature of access to what are commonly understood to be public spaces. The campaign drew its name from a book by the same name, in which the authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade detail various ways in which social norms lead to women experiencing spaces that are ostensibly public in ways that are very different from men. They observe that women are usually in a state of motion when outdoors and rarely found to be standing still or hanging out except in very specific places such as railway stations or their children's schools.

Studies of infrastructure have long recognised that the way infrastructures assemble and evolve also create path dependencies that newer advances will inherit and build upon. Path dependencies include a host of features ranging from technology features to social norms and can be both positive and negative. Thus, while newer technologies can reap the efficiencies of their predecessors, they can equally get mired in the undesirable qualities of the old. Overlaying WiFi infrastructure on spaces without fully recognising the characteristic of the social life of these sites runs the risk of the technology being used in ways that may not really be truly inclusive or public.

Stuck to mobile plans

As service providers gear up to set up their PDOs, it may serve them well to remain alert to the social characteristics of the spaces that they choose. Technology is often built and implemented without being adequately mindful about the ways in which it will be used or the constraints that may inhibit its use. Last year, a rural WiFi solutions provider I interviewed in Rajasthan emphasised that concerns about gender were completely misplaced because owning an Internet enabled device was the only condition to be able to use WiFi.

His belief was contested by young girls in the community who regularly accessed Internet on their smartphones. Since the girls were financially able and willing to pay for reliable WiFi, they wished for hotspots in locations that were also women friendly such as the village temple or the girls school instead of sites that only privileged the male user. A finding that emerged from my fieldwork revealed that while the Internet savvy women in the community remained tethered to spotty mobile Internet plans that constrained use, the service provider was also missing an opportunity to expand his customer base by not recognising their needs.

The act of drinking chai may be commonplace in India, but the outdoor spaces in which it is served and consumed is highly gendered. Remaining attentive to these nuances that govern social spaces will serve to both making PDOs inclusive as well as broaden the paying customer base for service providers.

Preeti Mudliar is a professor at IIIT-Bangalore

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 9:27:44 AM |

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