The WiFi divide between Fredericton and Toronto resides not in technology or funding but rather in vision and political will, according to an information studies professor.

Tale of two cities

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In a little more than a month from now, users of the country’s largest WiFi network – Toronto’s recently launched One Zone – will begin paying up to $29 a month for the privilege of cruising the information highway wirelessly.

By contrast, residents of City of Fredericton, New Brunswick will continue to enjoy free access to Fred e Zone, their city’s older, though weaker, WiFi network.

The WiFi divide between the two cities resides not in technology or funding but rather in vision and political will, according to an information studies professor.

The City of Fredericton and the Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc. (THT) made separate presentations on their respective WiFi networks at the Wireless Cities Summit in Toronto yesterday.

“Fredericton had the political will to stick to their objective of providing WiFi as a public service; our city did not,” said Andrew Clement, professor of information studies at the Knowledge Media Design Institute of the University of Toronto.

Toronto Hydro Telecom, the quasi-private corporation that owns One Zone, set out to build a paid service instead, said Clement.

He said One Zone has the more robust system that can penetrate the city core’s buildings and “urban canyons” while Fred e Zone was designed for lighter use.

Divergent “visions and ambitions” fueled the two cities’ quest for a WiFi network, according to Clement.

In 1997, Fredericton was paying premium fees to a telecom company for connectivity because there was no competition in their area and no market pressure to drive prices down, said Maurice Gallant, the city’s chief information officer (CIO). “We were paying three times the prices people in Toronto were paying.”

This drove the city of some 80,000 residents to consider, in 2000, to becoming its own wireless service provider.

Fredericton created a not-for-profit telecom co-operative called the e-Novations ComNet Inc. after learning Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) rules forbade governments from deploying network hardware on existing telephone and electric poles but allowed access to entities that compete with incumbent telecom companies.

The co-op was able to recruit 35 key businesses and organizations that became the paying subscribers. The rest of the users have free access because they consume the excess broadband that subscribers are not using.

Fredericton used city structures such as water towers, buildings and traffic lights to install transmitters. The first phase of the project cost $150,000 and the city provided an additional $300,000 for further expansion.

To date, Fredericton has more than 1,200 802.11 g WiFi access points. Gallant said Fredericton sees Fred e Zone as an “intellectual city structure” that should be open to the public. “You don’t charge people for walking on the sidewalk or strolling in the park. Why should you charge them for WiFi access?”

He admitted the network had some shortcomings. It cannot reach everyone and “theoretically free users might not be able to gain access if all the 35 subscribers decided to use up all their bandwidth at the same time.”

“No other city government is in the type of project we’re in because they can’t find the profit in it. But don’t ask me about ROI (return of investment), because we’re not looking for it,” said Gallant.

Sharyn Gravelle, vice-president, wireless, THT, holds a different view. “Wi-Fi networks shouldn’t be funded through taxes,” she says.

Toronto Hydro chose a “sustainable”, paid-for model for One Zone because the corporation “is not a part of the city or the public-private environment and has an obligation to its shareholders to turn in a profit,” said Gravelle. One Zone now covers a high density area of roughly six square kilometers, encompassing 235 city blocks. It offers connection speeds of up to seven megabits per second.

THT purchased light posts within the WiFi zone for $60 million and perched WiFi gear on every fourth or fifth pole.

Gravelle said Toronto Hydro Telecom is targeting a $2 million profit from most corporate users and hopes to recoup its investments within a year. The more profit One Zone makes, the more dividends Toronto Hydro shareholders get, she said.

The first six months of service are free, but come March 6 three payment plans will be offered: a pre-paid monthly subscription for $29, a 24-hour plan for $10 and an hourly rate of $5.

Clement, however, has qualms about this model.

“Why should the people who are supposed to own THT, have to pay a high price for something they own?” he asked, adding that THT is a telecom subsidiary of Toronto Hydro Corp. which is a fully owned by the city of Toronto.

However, Gravelle maintains THT is a “stand alone department of Toronto Hydro and not a part of the city or the public-private environment.” “There’s no such thing as a free lunch, someone has to pay for it somewhere,” said Gravelle.

She said One Zone has registered some 30,000 authenticated users and hope to bump this number up to 50,000 by the time it starts charging fees. Earlier this year an Ottawa-based not-for-profit Internet development organization said that THT was overpricing WiFi access .

Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of Canarie Inc. “Toronto probably has the most expensive WiFi in the world.” This was disputed by Gravelle who said One Zone charges competitive rates.

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