Say hi to WiFi in downtown T.O.

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First we take Bay Street, then we take T.O.

This may well be the motto of the Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc. (THT) as D-Day draws near.

For starting August 31 this year the quasi-public utility company hopes to blanket the downtown business sector with a wireless fidelity (WiFi) network dubbed One Zone.

By Christmas, the zone will be expanded to four other spots covering some 235 city blocks and approximately six square kilometers.

Six kilometers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) — which has an area of more than 7,000 sq kms — doesn’t seem that big a deal.

But THT execs have hinted this may just be the beginning. “Our pie-in-the-sky three-year plan is to have a network over 630 square kilometers of GTA,” said Sharyn Gravelle, THT vice-president, wireless services at a briefing event on Thursday.

At the briefing the company provided several details about the initiative, responded to a few questions, and left a few unanswered.

There doesn’t appear to be any specific target group for One Zone, as the service is being offered to consumers as well as businesses of all sizes.

What’s it going to cost?

The first six months will be free. After that an undisclosed pricing structure will take effect.

For those uncomfortable with being left in the dark about the costs, Dino Farinaccia, THT director of marketing and communications had words of reassurance: One Zone will be “competitively priced” and good service will be guaranteed.

Price will certainly be a big factor in determining whether and how quickly the new WiFi network takes off.

But quite a few industry analysts believe private Internet and wireless service providers in the city better be getting their act together. “[One Zone] is going to give them a run for their money,” predicted Alicia Wanless, senior analyst at technology consultancy firm SeaBoard Group Inc. in Toronto.

She said if THT can offer reliable service at an “acceptable” price point, companies such as Bell Canada, Rogers Wireless and Telus Mobility would have a pretty big threat on their hands.

Wanless noted that continuous and reliable service is a big issue with ISPs. By the same token, “this could be an opportunity for THT,” she said.

However, another analyst says for One Zone to really pose a challenge to the other wireless players, the service would need a much wider footprint.

“The Toronto downtown core is such a small area,” noted Warren Shiau, lead IT analyst at technology research firm Strategic Counsel in Toronto. “The likes of Rogers, Bell and Telus have significantly larger coverage.”

Shiau said THT would need to offer comparable or better services than private service providers for the new network to be competitive.

If THT’s forays into the WiFi fray does ratchet up competition, another Canadian analyst believes users stand to gain, and but the benefits could go far beyond lower prices.

“It’s possible One Zone will keep wireless prices down. But more importantly, I hope it spurs companies to develop new products and services,” said Stefan Dubowski, managing editor for Ottawa-based business research firm Decima Reports Inc.

At Thursday’s briefing THT disclosed the timeline for One Zone’s phased expansion in downtown Toronto:

• The August 31 launch will activate the network over the city’s financial district bounded by Queen Street in the north and Front Street in the south.

• Phase two launches some time in October, and will cover the College and Queen Street areas that house several hospitals, the Eaton Commercial Centre and Ryerson Polytechnic University.

• The third phase boots up in November and will cover the Bloor–College Street sector, including Yorkville shopping area, the University of Toronto and Queen’s Park.

• Phases four and five will launch in December. The network will be activated in the west downtown area bounded by Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street as well as east downtown in the Church and Parliament Streets area.

Gravelle said specific applications offered over the One Zone network will include dedicated Internet and Local Area Network services, private line services, voice over IP, video transport, storage transport and advance high capacity custom services.

During the trial stage, users will need to go through an authentication process, obtaining a username and password using a cell phone. Gravelle said the authentication process enables THT to identify users. “It’s an imperfect process. But after the trial stage credit card accounts and client accounts for enterprise users can easily be set up.”

Phil Vlach, technical lead at THT, said One Zone uses a multi-radio mesh configuration that is highly scaleable and provides low latency and is highly resilient to interference.

Traditional network structures employ access points that are connected to fibre network by cable. Instead of having each access point wired, a mesh structure’s nodes are connected to the fibre network wirelessly. “The signal from a customer’s a laptop, cell phone or other wireless device is passed on from node to node before it reaches the THT fibre network. If a node should fail, that signal is passed on to another connected node,’ said Vlach.

Once connected to the fibre network, the signal is transmitted to a wireless access gateway (WAG) that relays it to an Internet router, which in turn sends the signal to either a private or public network.

Vlach said that end users can connect to the THT network using Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 b/g WiFi standards compliant devices.

The network has an optimum data transmission rate of 54 megabits per second. Vlach did not say what the speed would be when multiple users are on the network. “I think the numbers would be comparable with those of Rogers and Bell.”

One Zone, is equipped to handle World Interoperability for Microwave Access or WiMAX, but Gravelle said THT decided to go with WiFi because this is the more widely used technology.

“WiFi devices are already in the market that’s why we decided to go with it. But we can always evolve to WiMAX when the time comes,” said Gravelle.

Read Part 2 of this article: No free lunches – or WiFi – says Toronto Hydro Telecom

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