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Berlin airing idea of free wi-fi throughout city

Berlin (dpa) – Network providers and other free-service initiatives are providing some fresh air to a long-mulled plan for Berlin that would provide free wi-fi service throughout the city …or at least in its key tourist hotspots.

That would mean tourists armed with a mobile phone or tablet computer could snap a souvenir shot in front of the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate and pop it straight onto Facebook or stop along the famous Kurfurstendamm, or Kudamm, and check the city’s online map without first finding – and paying for the use of – an internet cafe.

There are already some free services in the city, but coverage is spotty.

Kabel Deutschland provides 30 minutes of free service in the popular Prenzlauer Berg district, as well as in historic Hackescher Markt and 40 other spots. But the service doesn’t extend to the Brandenburg Gate or the Kudamm.

There was also an experiment in the summer of 2012 whereby advertising agency Wall AG set up 30 free hotspots, but that has expired.

So the city-state’s legislature is back at work on the problem, with plans to create more wi-fi zones in the coming year. The catch is that the cash-strapped German capital doesn’t want to spend money on the project, and is thus relying on private companies for help.

But, however ambitious the plans get, there is never likely to be a completely comprehensive system in the city, warns city official Bjoern Boehning: wi-fi transmitters broadcast too weak a signal to get through the thicker walls of the city’s older buildings, a problem experienced by other German cities with similar plans.

Juergen Neumann, a free-wi-fi supporter, says the trick will be relying upon private households.

”You can only get sufficient coverage through private households,” he says. ”It doesn’t make economic sense for a company to cover an area” the size of central Berlin.

But the free internet movement has managed to set up a free system broadcasting from the roof of Berlin’s main city hall. Thanks to directional antennas, the signal extends for 10 kilometres, connecting across the roofs of Berlin with other networks.

But that kind of private network would never replace a comprehensive city network, warns Neumann. Bandwidth isn’t comprehensive enough and there would be little coverage in poorer parts of the city where internet access isn’t so widespread.

But how much demand will there be in this age of flat rates for data and LTE connections?

Wall AG only recorded about 600 users a day during its summer project, at least half of them visitors from abroad. Most used mobile devices; there were relatively few hits with laptops.

And there are legal problems. Owners of internet cafes have long run the risk of being forced to pay if patrons use their free wi-fi to download items illegally. The Berlin team gets around the problem with its free wi-fi experiment by encrypting the data via Sweden.

Berlin has proposed in the national legislature a law to protect wi-fi providers from prosecution.

But what would private investors gain from providing free wi-fi? Boehning says they could make money from advertising. Others warn that, much like Facebook and other social networks do, the providers would make money by skimming off the private data of users.