Ether with Your Espresso? Italy Gets Wired with Free W-LAN

Efforts in Germany to establish free Wi-Fi networks in big cities have so far failed. Not so in Italy, where pilot projects in Rome and Florence show that a bit of creative thinking can make widespread free Internet access possible.

DPA

In Germany, politicians love to talk about their visions of free wireless Internet in cities across the country -- allowing residents to surf the web under Berlin's Brandenburg Gate or with a beer in hand in Munich's English Garden. Mostly, though, nothing comes of the free Internet chatter. Even in the capital, where Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit announced plans last summer for free, citywide W-LAN, no progress has been made because of tangles in the permit process.

Not so in Italy, where politicians seem to be much more committed to the idea. At the beginning of this year, ambitious projects aimed at creating citywide W-LAN launched in two locations. Now, both Rome and Florence are wired with wireless.

Capital city Rome has taken on the role of pioneer. In mid-January, politicians from the city and officials with the CNA, the national association of handyworkers and small- and medium-sized business, joined forces to create a network of free Wi-Fi Hotspots across the city.

Over 4,200 businesses that are CNA members are participating. Whether in espresso bars, restaurants or hair salons, it is to be possible for customers to surf wireless and free of charge by the end of the year. The business association is providing small companies with the equipment they need to get started. According to the plan, Rome's provincial authority will be responsible for spreading the city's W-LAN infrastructure to the greater metropolitan area.

The latest scheme is an extension of successful recent projects. In the past two years, Rome has established 500 Hotspots in public spaces around the city, including the park at Villa Borghese, the University of Rome Tre, the university hospital clinic and the beloved Campo de' Fiori square in the city center.

Connecting with the Regions

The planned expansion is not just limited to the areas surrounding Rome. In November 2010, the countrywide Free Italia Wi-Fi initiative was established, with the declared goal of providing the entire country with free Internet access. The project aims to connect existing public wireless networks. They also want to make it possible to access all of the networks with a single log-in and password, regardless what partner network a person is connecting to.

Nicola Zingaretti, the president of the Province of Rome, the administrative authority for the capital city's extended metropolitan area, says the project is no less than "a further major chapter in the country's modernization. With it, we want to share the experiences we have had during the past year and a half with our 'W-Lan Province' program," he said.

Further north, in tourist haven Florence, where millions flock each year to see the stunning Renaissance architecture, officials are taking a different approach in providing free Internet access to locals. Instead of relying on local businesses in the first stage, the city is providing wireless Internet access on its network of trams.

The city just opened up the bidding process for a Wi-Fi project worth €1.5 million ($2 million). By the end of February, the city will select the company that will equip the city's 7.5 kilometer-long (4.6 miles) Tram Line No. 1 with wireless antennas and underground cabling. The project is expected to be completed by summer, at which time all light-rail passengers, the 14 stations along the route and residents within 100 meters of the line will have free Internet access. The light-rail service will also be connected to 11 locations in the city center that have already offered free Internet access since the end of 2009. By the end of the year, five additional zones are to be added.

Although access is free, there are nevertheless some restrictions. Each day, users can surf for a maximum of one hour or a total volume of 300 megabytes.

Few Users So Far

There is, however, one small hitch. Very few in Florence are even aware of the availability of free Wi-Fi services in the city. There is not a single sign advertising the service to be found in the city. When Florence officials sought to conduct an advertising campaign to promote free Wi-Fi, they were held back by the city's office responsible for protecting historical monuments. The agency said it would block any attempt to advertise the services with posters in the historical city center. The result of that decision has been that, on any given day, at most a few dozen users log into the free network.

There are also plans afoot to privatize the service -- at least in the longer term. After an initial testing period, the city wants to transfer operations to a private company. Simone Tani, Florence's director of urban development, says that even after it is transferred to private hands, users will still be able to access the Internet for free for the first 30 minutes. A small fee would be required for additional surfing.

During the course of the year, Florence is also planning to bring small business on board in a manner similar to the project in Rome. Those businesses have until Nov. 15 to register to participate.

In order to ensure the success of the free networks, there are plans to remove a number of bureaucratic hurdles put in place six years ago in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. They include the local requirement that all users must be completely identifiable and that all traffic must be tracked.

So far, however, no changes have been made to the laws and, currently, shop owners are still required to be able to positively identify anyone who is using W-LAN in their establishment.

That, though, isn't likely to be much of a hurdle as Italy pushes ahead into its wireless future.

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