In implementing its municipal WiFi program, Alberta has bravely stayed away from the herd and decided to ignore the stampede towards erecting citywide wireless networks.

While other cities were rushing to build WiFi “hotspots”, the province instead focused on promoting the development of WiFi technologies by providing support for Alberta’s wireless technology sector.

Dubbed Wireless City, the program is a not-for-profit marketing service initiative that enables Alberta’s wireless players to showcase their technology.

“Why build WiFi networks when no one will use them,” says Richard Belzil, director of Wireless City. “Hotspots only add another layer of Internet access.”

Belzil spoke at the First Canadian Municipal Wireless Applications Conference and Exhibition in Toronto Tuesday.

He said the province realized that setting up WiFi hotspots “would require a huge investment of money but would not accomplish anything but provide another layer of Internet access.”

Rather than pour public funds in the creation of networks, the Wireless City program connects various established technology vendors with emerging Alberta companies to develop viable WiFi-enabled products and services.

The program, which began in 2003, is an initiative of WiTec Alberta, an association of wireless and telecom players. Wireless City is now being run by Calgary Technologies Inc., a joint partnership among the City of Calgary, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and the University of Calgary, offering programs, services and resources for business commercialization and incubation.

The focus of the strategy was to identify “venues” that will allow local firms to exhibit their capability and help them launch “made-in-Alberta technologies” that are ready for global markets.

Wireless City features a WiFi-enabled Red Arrow Motorcoach traveling the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, developed by Bentek Systems, Wireless Edge Canada and Cypress Solution.

To boost link performance, all Web traffic to and from the Red Arrow are routed through Wireless Edge’s BeFast product. Developed in Calgary, BeFast uses intelligent Bandwidth Optimization Management and Acceleration technology to optimize content delivery to laptops onboard the coach. The project also showcases Cypress Solution’s Chameleon modems which will connect the bus to Telus Mobility’s national mobile data network.

Another Wireless City showcase is a GPS-enabled equestrian helmet that provides feedback on rider movement that could be valuable in enabling coaches to develop performance enhancement strategies.

This technology, developed by Sanmina-SCI, Bentek Systems, Advanta Design Group, Kanga Communications, Smart Technologies and Telus Mobility, can be applied to other sports requiring protective headgear.

Belzil said the Wireless City program enables established players like Telus and new companies to “stretch their minds” and work out their ideas on “real-world problems”. “We provide these firms with a sandbox to play out their ideas,” he said. He added that the government’s strategy is to get everyone on the table “and then stay out of their way.”

Alberta’s wireless strategy resonates well with Robert Musty, president of Delaware, Ont.-based INS Consulting. Musty is helping the town of Tillsonberg, Ont. develop uses for its WiFi network.

“Alberta is right. What good is a hotspot if no one is using it,” Musty said.

Tillsonberg set up its WiFi network in the hopes of enabling local businesses to market their products over the Web.

Musty said one of the goals of the infrastructure is to help the town host an online card-based payment system. “Banks are now charging an arm and a leg for this service. If we can offer it at a cheaper price, we can help our local businesses.”

Echoing Musty’s observation, Farooq Azam, Telus’ enterprise strategy and solutions architect, said municipal WiFi projects should ideally help local companies boost their businesses and help solve community problems, “rather than serve as a mere publicity campaign.”

According to Belzil, most municipal WiFi projects fail when politicians behind the program use it as a “soapbox”.

“When the politicians become more concerned about photo ops (photo opportunity) rather than business opportunity, the program is bound to fail,” he said.

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