Calgary hangs its Stetson on Wi-Fi

As words like “hotspot” and “Wi-Fi” become part of common business parlance, the City of Calgary quests to become Canada’s wireless centre of excellence.

Calgary this summer unveiled “Wireless City,” an initiative that would see the municipality turn on public wireless LANs so people would find untethered Internet connections around Cowtown.

Calgary companies built the Wi-Fi hotspots. According to Richard Belzil, the project’s director, Wireless City showcases Calgary firms’ aptitude in creating wireless infrastructure.

He pointed out that Calgary has a history of housing wireless firms. Nortel Networks operates a manufacturing plant for wide-area mobile equipment there. CSI Wireless Inc., a Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment builder, and Wi-LAN Inc., a network gear maker, call Calgary home.

Wireless City will build on Calgary’s wireless pedigree, Belzil said. “This is the industry getting together to say, ‘Let’s start gathering some more interest in Calgary as a wireless development centre.'”

Wireless City had four hotspots by press time, located at Olympic Plaza, the W.R. Castell Calgary Public Library, the Calgary Municipal Building and Stephen Avenue East. At these sites, people armed with 802.11b-enabled portable computers can connect to the Internet and collect e-mail messages.

“Everybody gets up to one hour a day of free Internet from the project participants,” Belzil said. “If they needed to buy more time, there are options for them to buy time from the service providers.”

As for the carriers, “they’re all welcome to play,” Belzil said. “We have right now NetWireless and Telus Mobility, but there’s room for another half dozen.”

Wireless City counts among its participants Cisco Systems Inc., network engineering firm Fringe Solutions Inc., and Guest-Tek Interactive Entertainment Ltd., a network solutions builder. Western Economic Diversification Canada, a federal department aiming to diversify western Canada’s economy, ponied up $388,700. Alberta Innovation and Science, the province’s tech-minded ministry, added $159,000.

Although the endeavour focuses on wireless technology for public use, Belzil said aspects of it speak to the enterprise as well. He pointed to Wi-LAN’s contribution as an example. This firm’s equipment ties Wireless City’s hotspots together; the gear might help solve connection conundrums for multi-campus companies located where fibre-optic cables are hard to come by.

“When you have an enterprise distributed over an area, it makes sense to use wireless shots between the locations,” Belzil said.

Haoming Huang, Wi-LAN’s product marketing manager, said Wireless City uses the firm’s Ultima3 platform. In a point-to-multipoint configuration, the infrastructure supports 12Mbps at 5GHz on the air, and connects to the wireline world at the Calgary Municipal Building.

Belzil said Wireless City stands to answer some of the more pressing questions regarding hotspots: what technology should carriers use? Which service providers have the proper pricing scheme? And importantly, how will participants turn Wi-Fi into a moneymaker?

“Nobody knows how the whole game is going to play out,” Belzil said.

Iain Grant, a Montreal-based industry analyst at the SeaBoard Group Inc., said he has a hunch which business model will win the Wi-Fi match. Grant said he’s fond of Verizon Communications Inc.’s modus operandi. The New York City firm in May announced plans to roll out 1,000 hotspots in the big apple by year’s end.

Rather than charge users money for connecting, Verizon offers free access – with a hitch: users must be Verizon high-speed Internet customers in the first place to hook into the hotspot without paying.

Grant said the plan gives Verizon’s current customers a reason to stay and the competition’s clients a reason to switch.

But Grant was less impressed with Wireless City, saying Wi-Fi is “a commodity now….I don’t see where there’s a role for someone to say, ‘I’m going to take this on as a centre of excellence.’ I think one would have to look beyond.” He suggested the next big thing for wireless would bring together hotspot and wide-area cellular access.

Belzil agreed that basic Wi-Fi components are becoming commodities, but he also pointed out that the infrastructure required to support large-scale wireless LANs is somewhat more unique – consider the Wi-LAN backhaul network and the Guest-Tek on-screen gateway. Wireless City has plenty of opportunity ahead in the wireless arena, he said. “Let’s start recognizing that this is one of the future cornerstones for our economy.”

For more info about Wireless City, visit www.wirelesscity.ca.