Doctoral thesis

Social dimensions of public large-scale wi-fi networks : the cases of a municipal and a community wireless network


260 p.

Thèse de doctorat: Università della Svizzera italiana, 2018 (jury note: Magna cum laude)

English Wireless networks play an increasingly important role in today’s mobile and interconnected society. People use mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets or portable game consoles on a regular basis to interact, retrieve and share information, and to orient and entertain themselves. However, in order to be fully performant these devices need to be connected to the Internet. Thanks to very good broadband penetration in Switzerland, this is not so much an issue in private homes and offices where local Wi-Fi networks allow mobile devices to connect to the Internet. Nonetheless, in public spaces, good working wireless networks, even though increasing, are still not very frequent and generally cover only limited areas. Alternative, provider- centered mobile data (3G/4G/LTE) is still expensive especially for visitors because of high roaming rates but also for Swiss people, whose majority still did not have unlimited data contracts in 2016. Public large-scale wireless networks can thus play an important role in providing Internet connectivity to people on the go. This dissertation studies two different approaches to the provision of Wi-Fi broadband connectivity in public spaces: on the one hand, municipalities providing Wi-Fi access in some areas of the city through so-called Municipal Wireless Networks (MWN), and on the other hand, communities with members sharing part of their home broadband connection with other community members, building so-called Community Wireless Networks (CWN). Wireless communities can either be purely self-organized (pure wireless communities) or have a for-profit company managing the community (hybrid communities). While existing studies have analyzed business and ownership models, technical solutions and policy implications of public wireless networks, this research is interested in their social dimensions, focusing on the role of individuals using and contributing to these networks. To do so, two main research goals are addressed: 1) understanding what motivates people to join and actively participate in a hybrid CWN and what hinders them from doing so, and 2) understanding who the users of a MWN are and how they use the network in order to identify various user types and usage practices, which will in turn help municipalities design networks that address the needs of various users. In order to study users’ motivations and concerns for joining and actively participating in a hybrid wireless community, the Fon community (Fon, 2018b) has been analyzed, which at the time of this study was the largest worldwide hybrid CWN. A mixed research approach has been applied. First, an existing model on motivations in pure communities (Bina & Giaglis, 2006a) has been adapted with the help of semi-structured exploratory interviews of 40 Swiss Fon members and then refined through a quantitative online survey addressed to Swiss and foreign Fon members. The resulting model shows which motivations attract members to the community, and which concerns have a dissuasive function. In a second step, 268 valid survey answers have been used for structural equation modeling (SEM) in order to assess which motivations actually result in a higher level of active participation. In order to analyze usage and users of a MWN, the “WiFi Lugano” MWN of the city of Lugano has been chosen. Lugano is located in the Italian-speaking southern part of Switzerland, is a popular tourist destination and the region’s economic capital. In collaboration with the electricity company in charge of implementing the Wi-Fi network (Aziende Industriali Luganesi – AIL), technical network data (log-data) and user-provided information – users were asked to fill-in a short survey after they logged-in to the network – have been collected and analyzed in combination (the two data sets have been merged). In a first step, usage profiles of leisure tourists, business travelers and residents have been created and described applying descriptive statistics to data of three summer months (June – August 2013). In a second step, cluster analysis has been applied to one-year data (June 2013 – May 2014), in order to identify relevant groups of users. Outcomes suggest that in a hybrid CWN, members are motivated to join the community mainly by a mix of utilitarian (e.g. getting free Internet access) and idealistic motivations (reciprocity and altruism), while intrinsic and social motivations are less important. This confirms that motivations are similar to those in pure CWNs but have different weights. In fact, in pure CWNs, intrinsic and social motivations seem to be stronger while in hybrid CWNs, utilitarian motivations prevail. Two types of active participation have been identified in the Fon community, each one driven by a different mix of motivations: “participation by sharing” – putting effort into actively sharing one’s own Internet connectivity – is mainly driven by idealistic motivations related to community values and reciprocity, while “social participation” – being socially involved in the community by interacting with and helping other community members – is driven by social (communicating, learning from each other) and technical reasons (experimenting with technologies). Surprisingly, utilitarian motivations do not have a significant effect on either of the two participation types, even though they are the most relevant ones in attracting new members. With regard to the MWN “WiFi Lugano”, five different usage practices have been identified: two business-oriented ones (“E-mailer” and “Mobile-worker”), two tourism-oriented ones (“Tourism information seeker” and “Always-on traveler”), and one corresponding to the practices of locals (“Local social networker”), each one having different characteristics. The “WiFi Lugano” network thus acts as a business, tourism, and social inclusion enabler, actively favoring various eGovernment relationships: government to business (G2B), government to visitors (G2V), and government to citizens (G2C). Based on these outcomes it has been possible to define a series of suggestions to help cities take advantage of their MWNs and improving them accordingly. Cities could for example provide different landing pages to different publics in order to promote the city in a targeted way, ensure a high quality service of their MWNs, use the Wi-Fi networks to promote tourist attractions and vice-versa (e.g. mark Wi-Fi areas on city maps, build Wi-Fi areas near to tourist attractions, and provide a description of the attraction on the Wi-Fi network’s landing page), share the network with small businesses in the area and extend the reach of the network to relevant areas.
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Information, communication and media sciences
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