Tel Aviv offers free wifi, but politician hurls charges

The ‘Start-up city,’ as Mayor Ron Huldai calls it, sets up 80 hotspots – much to the chagrin of his rival for the top slot

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai surfs the Internet under a roof of 600 colorful umbrellas decorating Rothschild Boulevard, announcing the new 'Wi-Fi cloud' in the city in 2013. (photo credit: Kfir Sivan)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai surfs the Internet under a roof of 600 colorful umbrellas decorating Rothschild Boulevard, announcing the new 'Wi-Fi cloud' in the city in 2013. (photo credit: Kfir Sivan)

In the latest installment of an ambitious plan to digitalize the city, the Tel Aviv municipality announced that it would provide free wifi connections at 80 hotspots around the city. It’s the kind of city program it would be very hard to find fault with – unless, of course, you were a rival of the mayor who came up with the idea.

The free wifi program is part of Tel Aviv’s overall strategy to position Tel Aviv as the Start-up City, a hub of innovation and creativity, announced several months ago. Free wifi will be available in 80 different locations citywide, including beaches, entertainment centers and tourist attractions.

It’s part of what Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai portrayed at a recent press conference as “a digital revolution” in the city, which is “marshaling digital technology for the benefit of residents and visitors.”

“We have a lot of young people here who are involved in the high-tech industry,” Huldai said. “We have done a lot to encourage creative entrepreneurs to move to the city, including providing incubator environments for entrepreneurs to work, and working closely with the many start-ups that have opened offices in the center of the city. Now we want to marshal this talent to developing ways that will make life easier for residents. It’s part of our vision of making everything as accessible and open to residents as possible.”

The free wifi program is part of an overall plan to eventually convert all city services to be digitally accessible. The city recently began issuing its Digi-Tel card, which grants personalized discounts to events and programs in Tel Aviv based on user preferences, locations, etc. Mobile apps will enable residents to do all city business online, and a map app will provide directions and information on businesses, museums, synagogues, parks, restrooms, and even parking. Residents will also soon be able to access records relating to their home, tax obligations, and other vital data as the city opens up its databases to online access.

The free wifi program will give Tel Aviv residents and visitors additional options for Internet use. Free wifi is not rare in Tel Aviv; most coffee shops offer it, even to non-customers, and shopping centers, malls, hospitals, and even trains and buses offer free wifi, more often than not. Many of the hotspots set up by the city will be in areas where coverage wasn’t available before — especially outdoor venues like beaches and parks.

“The city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa is a leader in innovation and in trailblazer thinking,” said Huldai. “As a municipality we facilitate this and encourage an innovative approach in various fields. The city wifi we are launching today will enable the city’s visitors and residents to enjoy free surfing throughout the city.”

That’s all well and good, said Nitzan Horowitz, Huldai’s rival for the mayor’s office in the upcoming municipal elections, set for October. If free wifi is such a great idea, asked Horowitz, then why wait until a month before the election to implement it? And even more important, are the high-profile events and publicity campaign that has accompanied the wifi inauguration necessary? Who’s paying for those, anyway?

“Huldai is using public funds for his own political purposes,” said Horowitz. “Free wifi is definitely a service that the city should be providing, but with that, the resource-hogging campaign to introduce the service, using public funds on the eve of an election, is a cynical and unacceptable use of the public treasury to promote the mayor’s reelection. We intend to demand that the Central Election Committee put a stop to the misuse of these funds.”

A spokesperson for Huldai said the mayor had no comment.

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