Telecommunications experts have been watching the developments at Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc. with avid anticipation ever since David Dobbin was named president of the Toronto Hydro Corp. subsidiary in August.

Yesterday’s announcement of plans to throw a blanket Wi-Fi hotzone over the city came as no surprise. Toronto Hydro Telecom is aiming to cover the downtown core with Wi-Fi access points by the end of this year, starting with the financial district, and hopes to build out to its entire municipal jurisdiction within three years.

As chief operating officer of Telecom Ottawa Inc., Dobbin was responsible for installing a Wi-Fi network in the capital’s downtown core. Since moving to Toronto, he’s been on a hiring spree that helped lure two key players in the wireless field.

Ian Collins, former president of FibreWired Hamilton, was appointed vice-president of operations and Sharyn Gravelle, a former Microcell (Fido) executive, was named vice-president, wireless, and is responsible for the development, deployment and maintenance of Toronto Hydro Telecom’s Wi-Fi network.

Collins was in charge of engineering a hybrid network of Wi-Fi and Wi-Max installations in the Hamilton-Wentworth region last fall. The network was set up to support the Ontario Government’s initiative to install electricity smart meters in every home and business by 2010.

Providing a communications network for Toronto’s smart meters was one of the clear business drivers for the city’s Wi-Fi hotzone, says Dobbin, whose previous work with Hydro One Telecom involved setting up municipal-area and wide-area networks in Southern Ontario before he joined Telecom Ottawa. “We needed a network to send and receive data for the smart meters and here we are with one of the largest fibre networks in the city – why not extend it with Wi-Fi and read the meters that way?”

Dobbin says it was almost all too obvious. He says the second impetus behind the project came when the City of Toronto sold its street lighting assets to Toronto Hydro Street Lighting Inc., another subsidiary of Toronto Hydro Corp.

Toronto’s hotzone will see hundreds and then thousands of radio antennae attached to the city’s streetlight poles, which threw another learning curveball at Dobbin.

“The Ottawa experience taught me how these things work, how they’re engineered and what kind of traffic to expect,” he says. “But mounting the antennae on streetlight poles was an entirely new experience.”

In Ottawa, Dobbin says the Wi-Fi network was built on the city’s existing hydro poles, but the Toronto Hydro electric system does not allow radio attachments on hydro poles. “They don’t do it, so we had no option.”

Another technical lesson he learned was how to push Wi-Fi’s reach further with a single access point, using multiple uni-directional antennae rather than one omni-directional antenna.

Typically a Wi-Fi antenna has a range of anything between 15 metres and 50 metres. In beta tests carried out at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Toronto Hydro Telecom team was getting almost 300 metres, or up to the ninth floor of an office building or condominium.

“With an omni-directional antenna, coverage spreads out like a bubble and it’s generally short-range,” says Dobbin.

One access point might have as many as 16 antennae all pointed at very specific directions, which allows coverage to go a lot further, he says.

Alicia Wanless, an analyst with Toronto-based Seaboard Group, describes the entrepreneurial Dobbin as a visionary. “The grid he made in downtown Ottawa was quite exceptional and it’s exciting that he’s moved to Toronto. He really thinks big and is quite capable of doing big things.”

But Dobbin is quick to play down his role in the project and points to his new engineering staff. “We brought in the wireless talent to get us through,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m a fibre guy.” He says he wants Toronto Hydro Telecom to work with the established telcos such as Rogers, Bell and Telus, as a member of the Canadian Hotspot Roaming Alliance.

“Now is not the time for competitive chest-pumping,” says Dobbin.

“We’re building this to make it available in the city of Toronto and I think all of the carriers should be working together to ensure [users] have access to the technology. We’re building the zone, let’s work together.”


Related article:

Toronto’s blanket hotzone ‘good’ for mobile business

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