Business association buys the access points while the carrier provides the bandwidth in a deal that both parties say brings benefits

Bell, merchants partner for free WiFi in Montreal

Bell Mobility has expanded its WiFi network in the country by striking an innovative deal with a Montreal merchants’ association.

The carrier said Wednesday that it is providing free WiFi along one of the busiest corridors of the city, a 1.6 km stretch of Saint Laurent Blvd. with some 300 street-level stores, restaurants and coffee shops.

Powered by a mesh network that uses 13 access points from Cisco Systems Inc., the service is a partnership with the Societe de developpement du boulevard Saint-Laurent that aims to benefit both parties.

The association – which will pay just under $150,000 over five years for the network’s hardware – hopes to differentiate itself from other shopping areas in the city, while Bell Mobility –which is supplying the bandwidth – hopes to keep up its visibility as a major telecommunications provider in the province.

“We see this as an extension of our overall network capability,” said Almis Ledas, Bell Mobility’s vice-president of corporate development.

The network covers some eight blocks dubbed The Main between Sherbrooke Street and Mont-Royal Avenue. Stores that have their own WiFi networks will keep them, because the network is largely for the strollers on the street, which includes two parks.

It’s one of the few outdoor places in the country Bell  [TSX, NYSE: BCE] offers WiFi service to. The telco is behind WiFi service in more than 2,000 hot spots including 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants, 800 Starbucks and almost 100 Indigo-Chapters bookstores.

“We believe we can offer customers an overall better experience if we can also offer WiFi in places where they could find it beneficial,” Ledas said, whether that’s a coffee shop or a bookstore, “and if find a willing partner willing to work with.

The Saint Laurent merchants group had two things Bell was looking for: An area with a lot of pedestrian traffic that wanted to offer an enhanced service to customers.

“We wanted to give [local] consumers a better shopping experience,” said Francis Blouin, the association’s executive director. In addition, the group thought foreign tourists would be attracted to an area where they could use WiFi instead of their expensive data allocation.

It’s a heavily traveled street. The association holds three events a year, he said, attracting around 300,000 people.

The association hopes that for shoppers the WiFi will act as a free portal to finding stores and services they are looking for.

Bell Mobility customers will have free access around the clock, while others will have their access limited to 30 minutes a day. To log on the WiFi network, a user has to enter a phone number, which will quickly identify whether they are a Bell Mobility subscriber. They system then gives the user an access code to enter.

While Bell provides the transport, the WiFi network itself is managed by Montreal-based Datavalet Technology Inc., which provides WLAN guest management services for businesses, hotels and hospitals across the country.

Iain Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group, a Montreal-based telecommunications consultancy, said the partnership is a clever move by Bell. It reinforces the company’s brand, providing significant visibility in a key commercial corridor. It also creates a new benefit for being a Bell customer in an area where arch competitor Videotron Ltee is making inroads with its new cellular network.

The corridor is very heavily populated by students, he added, whose mobile loyalties may well be swayed by the offer of longer free WiFi if they switch providers.

Bell, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. quietly provide WiFi services to a number of coffee shop and related businesses, but they may become more visible with Shaw Communications Inc.’s decision to build a WiFi network in Western Canadian cities. Shaw [TSX: SJR.B] made the move because WiFi is less expensive than building a cellular network. It expects to begin service next spring, probably offering free connectivity to its cable and Internet subscribers.

Ledas said Bell is talking to other groups in Montreal about partnerships in well-trafficked areas, and will consider pacts in other cities.

However, he gave the impression Bell isn’t in a rush. The carrier had been in discussions with the Saint Laurent association “for more than a year” before the deal was finalized he said. One reason is that it wasn’t a priority for either side, he said.

 

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