Dubai’s win-win-win free Wi-Fi

 Michael Newlands     March 16 2017

One of the key indicators of a smart city is how accessible all the new digital services being generated are to the general public. Accessibility implies affordability and mechanisms to access the digital city resources. Because we live in the mobile broadband smartphone world, the apps which power the digital interfaces to city services must be available to all, even to those who cannot afford a data connection even if they have a phone.

The vital importance of robust, ubiquitous communications is something that has been at the forefront of the thinking of the Dubai government agency planning smart city, the Smart Dubai Office. It has signed a comprehensive agreement with du through which the local mobile operator will be the central strategic partner for the development of the smart-city initiative in Dubai. This was two years after an agreement making du the Wi-Fi provider for the city.

With full coverage scheduled by the end of 2017, the free Wi-Fi service was launched in May 2015 in 200 locations and has been rapidly growing ever since, now being available on all public transport including taxis. While the advantages of this to both the Dubai government on the one hand and residents and visitors on the other are obvious, what is not so obvious are the advantages to du.

The operator engaged in some lateral thinking to come up with a business model which would not compete with its lucrative 3G/4G mobile data business while also monetizing the free Wi-Fi service. The model it came up with is a tiered one.

Wi-Fi UAE as the service is called (due to plans to take it to the rest of the country when Dubai is fully covered) offers a basic free service at a speed of 512 Kbps to anybody with a Wi-Fi compatible mobile device. This is fast enough to allow access to hundreds of government services ranging from information to registration, payments and bookings, and also to social networking.

Mobile data services, whether pre- or post-paid, are not cheap in Dubai and out of the reach of many residents. So a big new audience, largely of expatriate workers, is using the government services and also getting free social networking on mobile for the first time. Where du gets its cut is from the Wi-Fi Premium service which runs alongside the free service, and from short sponsored videos which must be watched every 60 minutes by anybody using the Wi-Fi UAE service.

Wi-Fi Premium allows unlimited download of data-intense services such as video streaming, with 6 hours, which must be consumed within three days, costing about $5 and 20 hours, valid for 7 days, costing $13. For people on limited budgets this is still good value if compared with going to a cinema or renting a video, and a lot more affordable than a mobile data package. It is also useful for visitors. So du gets a new audience, and new paying customers, it would probably not otherwise have got.

It’s not often in telecommunications, as in life in general, where a situation appears to be genuinely that favorite cliché of negotiation classes, win-win-win, but this is one. The model is not unique, but represents an excellent example to telecom operators resisting pressure from municipal governments to offer free Wi-Fi. It is possible to offer free services, and it is possible to monetize them. For local governments, this represents an opportunity to resist the temptation of becoming Wi-Fi providers themselves, without the proper budget, technical expertise or institutional structure to provide good and cyber-safe Wi-Fi.

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