PAWS: Public Access WiFi Service

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Computer Laboratory


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

Planned Impact

The aim of the project is to assess the feasibility of a new networking infrastructure that will allow near-universal access to low-bandwidth Internet. The only remaining economic barrier will be the cost of a basic smartphone, currently around £50. This touches on a number of areas directly, but, given the fundamental role that the Internet plays in modern societies and economies, if successful in enabling 'everyone, everywhere' access its main benefits are likely to be society-wide. As a result potential beneficiaries are numerous. These include: local and national government, the general public, industry, academia, and third sector. The value is international in scope, as digital inclusion is desirable for all nations, developed and developing.

Aiding universal access would significantly boost the UK Government's 'digital by default' programme of moving service provision online. Many of those most reliant on such services are those currently digitally excluded, and so service access must be duplicated on- and off-line. Potential annual savings from this have been calculated to be £2.2bn. Relevant departments include the Cabinet Office; Business, Innovation and Skills; and Communities and Local Government.

For the public, PAWS largely removes economic barriers to Internet access. The subsequent increase in those able to go online has a number of benefits. The most important of these is reducing digital exclusion. Those previously unable to afford access will be able to access crucial information services like employment, welfare, and housing. They will be able to access online marketplaces offering greater diversity of choice and value for money, a significant issue for those of limited mobility in deprived areas. Socially isolated individuals will become easier to reach for targeted interventions, for example in directing them towards suitable skills training. Fundamentally, increased digital inclusion means a less divided society, the consequences of which were witnessed in last year's rioting in many UK urban areas. These benefits are society-wide, as will be enabling the accelerated deployment of 'digital by default' services, which will mean all citizens are able to interact with government services more easily.

For business, the primary benefit of increased online access to is having additional participants in the Digital Economy. This means greater virtual footfall. There are also more direct benefits such as creating a driver for the uptake of smartphones, which using PAWS could offer basic connectivity at no extra cost. Additionally, there is the opportunity for businesses creating novel applications targeting this low bandwidth sector, such a streamlined apps offering access to particular information services.

For academia, PAWS has multidisciplinary value for a number of fields. In the social sciences, it will address bodies of work in social policy, sociology, science and technology studies (STS), and human-computer interaction (HCI). Relevant issues include tackling social exclusion, understanding the role of virtual communications in socially excluded communities, building successful socio-technical networks, and user requirements for low bandwidth Internet access. For technology, the project will contribute to the Internet Society (ISOC), both from the wider goal of enabling universal Internet access and specifically by ensuring the work is aligned to IETF priorities (the primary standards group for Internet technologies). Impact will be assessed using by uptake by standards bodies (ISOC/IETF) and in the medium to long term by equipment vendors and network operators - and hence the ability to change the operation of deployed networks.

In the third sector, PAWS will directly aid the cause of digital inclusion and anti-poverty charities, by lowering barriers to access. It will also potentially make it easier to contact socially isolated individuals who would most benefit from their service


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Goulden M (2016) Wild interdisciplinarity: ethnography and computer science in International Journal of Social Research Methodology

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Sathiaseelan A (2013) LCD-Net lowest cost denominator networking in ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review

Description We understood the technical mechanism to deploy free internet access for people in poor urban areas, and have a good understanding of usage patterns from the people who signed up to our service. We also dealt with security and regulatory aspects. However, the number of signups, after visitng over 2500 houses, was very very small. The social scientists on the project have a very good model of why, which is in itself, a useful, but unexpected outcome. We do not expect the same obstacles to takeup in rural experiments being continued by colleagues.
Exploitation Route The Internet standards groups have setup GAIA, plus several large followup projects including EU funding are supporting this.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The IRTF group, gaia: has been set up to deploy more experiments taking on board the economic, policy and social aspects of findings from PAWS and other projects.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services