Ubiquitous connectivity through mobile devices is reshaping the social life, economic activity and governance of cities. A new surge of government investment in public Wi-Fi infrastructure is occurring within a telecommunications environment underpinned by market liberal principles. This research will explore the role and function of government in the provision of infrastructure for the wireless city by documenting and analysing the processes through which the Victorian Department of State Development, Business and Innovation (DSDBI) public Wi-Fi trials for Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo were conceived, negotiated, publicised and implemented.
Across the globe, the transformation of social, commercial and governmental engagement by mobile connectivity are overlaying existing conceptual and material constructs of urban infrastructure with a new conception of the wireless city. By international comparison, though, Australian cities have lagged in the availability of public internet access through Wi-Fi technology. This gap is now closing, particularly through investment by Australian local government authorities and state governments.
In line with international trends, Australian city governments advance a range of public good and market failure arguments for their investment in Wi-Fi (McShane et al., 2014). Hampton and Gupta’s (2008) call for research on the impact of wireless internet access on public interactions has been taken up in Australia (Lambert et al., 2013), but there has been no detailed research on the provision, use and impact of public Wi-Fi as a new form of civic or urban infrastructure. This means that the case for government investment in an area with both market provision and community-based initiatives has yet to be clarified or tested. This has important consequences, not only for government services and budgets, but for local-level private and social enterprise, and for national policy formation in areas such as broadband and spectrum allocation.
We seek to open up new territory in investigating Wi-Fi as a form of urban infrastructure with features that distinguish it from physical infrastructure traditionally provided by local and state authorities on standard market failure grounds (eg, that the infrastructure has monopoly characteristics). A distinctive feature of public wireless internet access is its capacity to promote innovation and change (Benkler 2002). Potts (2014) and Bakhshi et al. (2011), in their work on the role of the ‘experimental state’ in facilitating innovation argue that this feature is an important but under-recognised economic rationale for public investment in Wi-Fi. Testing this contention is one of the key objectives of this research.
This project initiates what we intend to be a broad program of domestic and international research addressing key gaps in our empirical and theoretical understanding of the role and function of government in providing network infrastructure in the wireless city. It centres on examining the conception and implementation of the DSDBI’s Public Wi-Fi trials for Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo, announced in March 2014, with a view to conducting a detailed evaluation of these trials as part of a subsequent program of research. The project presents a rare opportunity to conduct ‘real-time’ and embedded research on the process of public investment in wireless urban infrastructure.
This research will specifically examine:
- the domestic and international context in which the Victorian Public Wi-Fi policy was developed and implemented;
- the nature and extent of current Wi-Fi provision in the trial areas;
- how the Victorian public Wi-Fi policy was framed;
- how the Victorian public Wi-Fi policy was advocated;
- how stakeholder roles (State Government, Local Government, Commercial Vendor and Community) were negotiated;
- the nature of the procurement process;
- type of network architecture (hardware and software) deployed;
- the business model underpinning the trial;
- media coverage of the trial announcement, vendor announcement and selected commentary; and
- the Australian legal framework relating to public Wi-Fi provision.
Research methods employed in this research include:
- semi-structured interviews with State and Local Government representatives and bureaucrats, commercial vendors and community stakeholders;
- systematic collation and analysis of media coverage and commentary;
- legislation and legal document analysis;
- domestic and international scholarly and policy literature review;
- trial site fieldwork.
- Dr. Ian McShane – Deputy Director, Centre for Urban Research (email@example.com)
- Prof. Jason Potts – School of Economics, Finance & Marketing (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Dr. Mark Gregory – Senior Lecturer, School of Electrical & Computer Engineering (email@example.com)
- Em. Prof. Margaret Jackson – Graduate School of Business & Law (firstname.lastname@example.org)
International Partner Investigators
- Prof. Catherine Middleton – Canada Research Chair, Communication Technologies in the Information Society (email@example.com)
- Prof. Hasan Bakhshi – Director, Creative Economy in Policy & Research, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Dr. Chris K Wilson – Centre for Urban Research and Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture (email@example.com)
This research is conducted in accordance with RMIT University’s Human Research Ethics protocols. The project approval number is CHEAN A – 0000015711-09/13. If you have concerns regarding this project which you do not wish to discuss with the researchers you can contact the Ethics Officer, Research Integrity, Governance and Systems, RMIT University, GPO Box 2476V VIC 3001. Tel: (03) 9925 2251 or email firstname.lastname@example.org