Last Friday at 3pm, Christy Beal was stood on the edge of Barnardo Square, next to City Hall on Dame Street, jabbing at the screen of her phone.
She and her family – over from New Jersey for a short break – had tried to log in at a few of the Dublin public free wifi spots around the city. “I’ve been looking for the signs,” she said. Scan for wifi connections and you can see the network and a healthy number of bars but, so far, she hadn’t managed to connect.
In May this year, Dublin City Council quietly made use of a break clause to terminate its contract with Gowex, the wifi firm that had been providing the service. That started a six-month notice period, so at the end of this year, that wifi arrangement will be over.
There’s no public free wifi facilitated by Dublin City Council available right now, said Sinéad Murphy from the council’s press office. At the moment, that’s apparently because of a technical issue, but even if they do get it working again, it likely won’t be around for long.
It’s a shame nobody’s told confused holidaymakers. Or, for that matter, local councillors.
“I’d be very disappointed that it’s gone,” said Dublin City Councillor Mary Freehill, of Labour, who was unaware that it wasn’t available at the moment. “I’d be very keen that we could find something again, because I think it’s very good in the city that we have it.”
Fraud and Bankruptcy
Dublin City Council signed the contract with wifi firm Gowex back in October 2012. From January 2013, the scheme was rolled out across 12 city-centre locations. The terms made it look like a no-brainer.
“There was no cost for the provision of the service,” said Sinéad Murphy, the city-council spokesperson. Under the concession, the company awarded the contract had access to public infrastructure to help them provide the wifi service.
All well and good until July 2014, when, as the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, Gowex’s chairman admitted to fraud and the company filed for bankruptcy.
After that, “the company continued to provide the service until May 2015 under the terms of the existing contract,” said Murphy.
One of the big question now seems to be: what happens next? Is the city’s experiment with free public wifi over?
“The intention is to explore what future provision might be best provided in this area and for what purpose,” said Murphy from the council’s press office.
There is extensive free wifi across the city, with services on Dublin Bus and in tourism-information offices, and open networks in many of the city’s cafes and restaurants. Changes in technology and data packages also reduce the need for blanket internet access through public wifi, the council spokesperson said.
So, the council will be looking at what technology is now out there, what it can be used for, and whether it would add value given all the available private-sector wifi connections. “These considerations will be handled within the new approach to Smart City projects being developed by Dublin City Council,” said the council’s Murphy.
It’s definitely worth looking at bringing back free public wifi, says Richard Guiney, CEO of city-centre business group, DublinTown. “As a modern city, having free wifi is important. We know that all of the consumer surveys would suggest this, particularly with younger folk but I think it’s going to become more and more ubiquitous as time goes on.”
Dublin City Councillor Paul McAuliffe, of Fianna Fail, agrees. There’s still a need for it, says McAuliffe, who is also head of the council’s economic development and enterprise committee.
In Ballymun, there’s an enterprise plan to work with broadband-provider Magnet to set up a free-wifi zone there, he said. That way, they’d maybe catch some of the business coming in from the airport, and encourage them to linger longer in the Ballymun area.
The zone would run from the Civic Centre, through the Dublin City University campus and down to the Mater Hospital. “There’s a route to provide free wifi practically all the way in, if we can get it sorted,” he said. “That’s one of the projects that we’re looking at developing at the moment.”
For the Tourists
There’s also the question of whether you need widespread public wifi to support tourism apps. At the moment, tourists can head to a tourism-information office, download apps like Visit Dublin and Discover Ireland, and use them off-line as they wander.
They’ve got to have somewhere to download those apps, though. “Certainly from an economic perspective, if you want tourists to use apps, if you want app-based tourism guides and so on, you have to provide an element of free wifi,” said Fianna Fail’s McAuliffe.
[CLARIFICATION: On 23 Aug at 11.35am, this article was updated to reflect new information from Dublin City Council: the council exercised its break clause in May but the contract won’t end until December; the wifi isn’t working at the moment because of technical issues. We apologise for any errors.]