Wi-Fi marketing firm struggles to meet Canadian goal


Six months after vowing to have 5,000 free hotspots across the country by the end of 2010, a Wi-Fi marketing company isn’t close to meeting its goal.

“It’s been slower than I’d like,” acknowledged Asif Khan, country manager of Vex Canada.

A division of Brazilian-based Vex Corp., the company specializes in signing up fast food franchises, hotels and other businesses to offer hotspot service.

When the company launched in Canada last July, Khan’s goal was to have thousands of hotspots here in 18 months.

But in an interview he could only point to inking two unnamed airports and pilot tests in a number of Toronto-area food chains as success since announcing Vex was wiring Hamilton’s CFL football stadium.

Three more airports will be signed “in a couple of weeks,” Khan said, while some fast food chains will have national roll-outs next month.

Asked if he is disappointed with the progress, Khan replied, “Yes, a little bit.”

“I thought we’d be in a position where we would have some of the [pilot] projects done before Christmas,” he said. “We just weren’t able to push them fast enough.”

“The good news is nobody said no to us yet,” he said.

Pilots are underway in several southern Ontario Coffee Time donut and Eggsmart breakfast franchises, which are divisions of Chairman’s Brands Corp. of Toronto. Steve Michalopoulos, the corporation’s vice-president of brand development, said Friday that the Wi-Fi test has been going on for three months.

“By and large we’re fairly happy with it,” he said, it hasn’t decided yet if it will sign up.

Free Wi-Fi is “a value-added service we would like to offer our customers,” he said. “With a fairly huge convergence towards smartphones, it seems like the right move.”

Sponsored Wi-Fi has been slow to come to Canada. It’s more popular in the U.S. and Europe.

The supposed lure of free Wi-Fi is that it will bring in customers with laptops or handsets to a store who might stay at locations such as coffee shops longer and spend more on food than most customers.

In this country a few retailers have taken the plunge. Starbucks Corp., for example, offers free Wi-Fi to subscribers of BCE Inc.’s Bell Mobility wireless service. But most Canadian hotspots are fee-for service. That’s the model Vex has taken since 2002 to South and Latin America and Europe, where 70 per cent of its hotspots are paid for by users.

However, few Canadians want to shell out for Wi-Fi every time they stop for coffee, or have decided to pay for country-wide wireless service such as Rogers Communications’ Rocket Stick or Telus Corp.’s Mobile Internet Key. So in this country Vex has decided to go the free service route.

Vex offers site assessment and installation of access points from Cisco Systems Inc., while the retail or hotel supplies the broadband connection.

Users have to register online for access, where they will see a logo of the coffee shop or restaurant, or an ad.

Six months ago Khan saw tremendous opportunity here. “No one’s ever tried to come into the Canadian market and tried to build a national network,” he said when Vex Canada opened. “You have a huge consumer demand for Wi-Fi as driven by smartphones,” he said.

He still believes. “We’ve been making a lot of progress on the Canadian airport Wi-Fi front, which is one of Vex’s global strong suits,” he said. “We’re engaged with a number of airports on moving a lot of their existing paid Wi-Fi networks to free.”

He’s also been talking to municipalities about putting free Wi-Fi into hockey rinks, and to developers for putting it into shopping malls.

 “So we’ve been very active on getting things going and laying the groundwork for bigger rollouts later this year.”

He still thinks he can make the 5,000 hotspot target “based on some of the deals that are in our pipeline right now. I’m still going to hold to that as our target. We’re going to exceed that number over 18 months.”



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