Belling the Cat

New York. London. Belfast.

A random pick of three news items, each of which discusses the public availability of free wireless connectivity in mass transit systems. In London and New York, the service provider is a third-party private, for-profit, agency, while it is not mentioned in the article on northern Ireland, but seems to be the transit company itself.

Now, as many people would know, wifi is not currently the most protected and secure wireless connectivity option possible, but nearly all modern portable devices can connect to it ‘out of the box’. Northern Ireland has an almost century-long history of violent civil strife, with a lengthy death toll by suicide bombing, shootouts and even modern missiles etc. Nobody needs reminding about New York’s repeated experiences with violent terror attacks, including possibly the largest death toll in the world from a single incident, the destruction of the World Trade Center. London has suffered from decades of terror attacks, mostly a direct result of the now-abating civil strife in Ireland.

I doubt that anybody is wearing rose-colored spectacles imagining that there will never be another terror attack in these places. But they have made the implicit decision that providing convenient connectivity so that working people can be productive even while using mass transit facilities is an integral factor in a society that aspires to be stable and attractive for its people.

What then ails India? We have the most antediluvian rules restricting the use of wifi in public places. Security agencies regularly sweep public service providers to ensure that accessibility is restricted, that users must be logged in registers after providing independently verifiable identities, harass private citizens who believe that allowing their own contracted connectivity be shared with neighboring poor people is a selfless act of charity, and generally structure wireless connectivity to be crow-barred onto cellular telephony, for which data services are a high-priced luxury (and an afterthought, technically).

Have wifi facilities ever been misused in a terror attack in India? As far as I can recall, it has happened more than once, to convey emails claiming responsibility after an attack, the impugned emails being sent to media outlets for publicity. Without doubt, the police are thus deprived of the chance to use the emails to track down the perpetrators. However, this is the only justification for restricting wifi, preventing its growth in a country that prides itself on its tech-savvy population, one that is deprived at every turn of growing that savviness in its own, innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial manner. I would be very surprised to hear an argument from any student of developmental economics that the country can progress while the reins of power and influence are kept in the hands of a piddling few people, some of whom are obscenely rich billionaires, while many of the others feed from their troughs.

Our other achievement of note is the 2G scam, where the country notionally lost hundreds of thousands of crores in potential revenue by channeling artificially scarce licenses to a few (allegedly) bribe(I mean, of course, ‘rent’)-paying telecom companies, who provide the expensive (and pretty slow) data connectivity that is economically inaccessible to the greater portion of Indian residents. At least that money would have been available to be redistributed through several million government servants, and not a fraction of it going to a handful of politically well-connected parasites, although I myself believe that fostering self-reliance is a far better track, one the present dispensation seems desperate to avoid riding.

We are a developing country, we claim, and I suspect we make a lot of unnecessary effort to ensure that we remain one. But will anyone bell the FUD cat?

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Filed under Accessibility, Communication, Community, connectivity, Democracy, development, Radio, Self-help, Wi-Fi

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