Portugal’s Public Wi-Fi. Aka the White Elephants

The second round of funding for the WiFi4EU initiative has just been announced, and with it, a further 80 Portuguese municipalities will get Wi-Fi funding. But what does this mean? Will we benefit from it? And how will the coffee shops survive?

The WiFi4EU initiative “promotes free access to Wi-Fi connectivity for citizens in public spaces including parks, squares, public buildings, libraries, health centres and museums in municipalities throughout Europe.” Municipalities apply to the scheme to claim a voucher of €15,000, which is then used by the local council to hire an external company to install hardware in public places where free hotspots don’t already exist.

The White Wi-Fi Elephant of Portugal

This latest round of funding saw 143 Portuguese municipalities apply and 80 succeed in securing the Wi-Fi vouchers, according to Portugal’s National Communications Authority (Anacom). Added to the 127 municipalities that already secured funding under the initiative in late 2018, it means that 67% of all Portuguese municipalities are now included in the scheme. A total of 207 municipalities have more than €3.5 million between them for private companies to install hardware.

What Does This Mean for You?

Probably very little, for now. According to the WiFi4EU initiative, any municipality that wins a voucher “must ensure that the installation is completed and the installed network starts working within 18 months from the signature of the Grant Agreement.” And, knowing bureaucracy, it will take that full 18 months to get it done.

However, once it is done, the municipalities are contractually obliged to pay for and maintain the hardware and subscription for “free and high-quality Wi-Fi for their citizens and visitors for at least three (3) years after the installation of the network.” Moreover, the “high-quality” internet isn’t as subjective as it first seems, with the WiFi4EU initiative requiring successful municipalities to “subscribe to the highest available mass-market offer in the area and as a minimum, to one offering at least 30Mbps download speed.” Considering that at the time of writing, this correspondent had download speeds at home of around 16Mbps (average across multiple tests on multiple platforms), this seems like a pretty sweet deal — perhaps my Skype calls would be more successful in the public square than in my dank apartment.

A map of mainland municipalities that have WiFi4EU funding.

Furthermore, it could also mean that telecom companies start battling it out to have the “highest available mass-market offer” in every area, as it would mean securing relatively lucrative long-term contracts with councils. That could mean better infrastructure in general.

However, it may not be as glossy as it first seems. First, the “high-quality” speeds refer to the backhaul speed, not the per-user speed, so we could be in for a rather bitter disappointment as our phones and laptops dredge the murky depths of the internet for our Gmail. And, with the three-year minimum, it does seem a little like an EU-wide version of Vodafone offering you a free Wi-Fi router when you agree to a two-year phone package. Essentially, local municipalities — two-thirds of local municipalities of the entire country, remember — have to shell out their own cash to private companies until 2023 or 2024 for internet and repairs. And while that is all well and good in times of plenty, if there were a sudden dip in a local economy due to, say, a drop in tourism and a housing bubble going pop, then these free EU routers could very quickly become 207 white elephants roaming the streets of Portugal, with local government left to pick up the bill.

Moreover, just because a hotspot is there and the municipality is contractually obliged to keep it operational, it doesn’t mean that you will have internet. A quick stop in Cacilhas next to the large “free Wi-Fi” sign will teach you that.

And, finally, local councils are being given lumps of cash vouchers — €3.5 million worth of vouchers — to hand out to private companies of their choice. And the initiative is washing their hands of this deal entirely, presumably so as not to have to check it is being implemented properly:

“Each municipality may contract the Wi-Fi installation company of its choice to install the wireless equipment. Please note that the Commission/INEA will not intervene in the contractual relationship between the municipalities and their Wi-Fi installation company.”

Can anyone see where problems could emerge? No?

All said, it is important to remember that this initiative aims to reduce digital exclusion, especially in remote or rural areas, and increase access to online public services — something that is increasingly important as Portugal shifts more government portals online. To this end, it is a valuable initiative — but only time will tell whether the WiFi4EU vouchers will lead to a countrywide network of free hotspots or to a series of failing hardware, worn-out signs, and lost money.

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