In 2013, I started a communications and marketing consulting business while living in Cairo, Egypt—shortly after the summer’s revolution brought a new regime to power.
What I struggled with most, in terms of starting my business, was finding reliable wifi connections. Amidst widespread power outages, I relied on three separate connections: TE Data wired internet provided through decaying phone lines, an Etisalat wireless modem in case the power went out, and a Vodafone USB stick for back-up.
The New Gated Communities
All of these wifi networks were only accessible through an exchange of payment, totaling $30 to $50 per month with data limits. Occasionally, I would venture to a local cafe and pay at least $10 for food, coffee, and tea to use the wifi network for a few hours. Even social business coworking spaces, such as entrepreneurship centers or impact hubs located around the world, require membership fees to access their global professional communities and, of course, their wifi networks.
This current structure of wifi access in Egypt and the MENA region seems to deepen socio-economic divides, creating opposing groups of entrepreneurs: those who have the means to monetize their goods and services though web and social media and those who are not able to overcome financial barriers to access. Many are able to join the digital economy but many are not, even with the widespread adoption of mobile devices.
Digital Public Space
I would like to suggest that wifi networks could and should be transformed into digital public spaces to ensure free or affordable access. Wifi creates an empowered citizenry capable of learning, building, and designing its own web and mobile services together. Like other forms of public space, wifi would help increase entrepreneurial and economic activities in the region.
In fact, perhaps the most robust economic argument for public or city-run municipal wifi is rooted in increasing entrepreneurship and innovation. By offering public-based wifi, entrepreneurs are able to lower their costs associated with creating new products, services, and business models. New opportunities emerge that might otherwise go undiscovered or untapped:
“WiFi is an experimental technology in each municipal location with substantial entrepreneurial uncertainties. This, specifically, is the market failure, and it accrues…to entrepreneurs in figuring out new applications of WiFi to create new businesses or business models.There is therefore a legitimate role for public sector support for an experimental test bed in discovering these opportunities.” -Jason Potts, 2014
Compared to Europe and the U.S., the idea of municipal wifi or of even offering wifi in certain public spaces, such as libraries and parks, has not yet caught on in the Middle East and North Africa, with the exception of a few cities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The combination of factors that have led to the privatization and appropriation of MENA’s public spaces should be revisited. Whether digital or tangible, public space is necessary to create resilient communities, foster entrepreneurship, and overcome our perceived divisions.