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Industry analysts have praised Toronto’s plans for a city-wide municipal Wi-Fi network, welcoming Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc. as a major player in business-grade wireless connectivity for ubiquitous Internet access.What makes this different is it’s a blanket. It’s not little areas, so right off bat they have a starting point, a reason for customers [wanting] to go to them. The service is aimed at being different, covering your home and your office.Lawrence Surtees>Text

The proposed network poses an obvious and very serious threat to traditional telcos such as Bell, Telus and Rogers because the service will be much more than consumer-grade, say analysts. Quality of service will be supported by the utility telco’s Network Operations Centre that monitors network traffic to guarantee maximum bandwidth.

Toronto Hydro Telecom yesterday announced it would begin building out a mesh of Wi-Fi access points to create a wireless hotzone that would blanket all 630 square kilometres of the city by the end of 2009.

The utelco is targeting the financial district by the end of June and hopes to have the downtown core covered by the end of the year.

The company is not new to offering secure, enterprise-class Internet connectivity. Among its customers are four of Canada’s biggest banks, who use Toronto Hydro Telecom’s Gigabit Ethernet fibre optic network to transfer data between their Toronto sites.

Analysts pinpointed the ability to connect to the Internet seamlessly from anywhere as the biggest draw for municipal Wi-Fi. Each time they log on, users can connect with one password and no configuration issues even to a different service provider.

Ubiquitous coverage combined with high bandwidth makes Toronto Hydro Telecom’s offering a strong, viable alternative to the cellular carriers, says Lawrence Surtees, vice-president and principal analyst, communications research at IDC Canada Ltd.

The utelco’s Wi-Fi coverage will reach further across the city than any of the telco’s and Wi-Fi’s 2Mbps transfer rates and far exceeding the 400-700Kbps of 3G broadband cellular.

“First and foremost, what makes this different is it’s a blanket. It’s not little areas, so right off bat they have a starting point, a reason for customers [wanting] to go to them. The service is aimed at being different, covering your home and your office,” says Surtees.

“And if you’re offering better coverage and Internet access that’s better and faster than a mobile wireless data service, then that’s another point of differentiation to think about.”

For a competitive pricing model, Surtees says Toronto Hydro Telecom should be looking not only at the market’s Wi-Fi access prices, but also at monthly and pay-as-you-go Internet access models. “The service needs to be not just different, but also better and/or cheaper.”

Garry Foster of Deloitte & Touche LLP in Toronto describes the city’s project as a great plan, but cautions adoption rates will be slower than anticipated.

“Businesses won’t be giving up their wired networks immediately, but as they learn to layer in security…this will get slow and steady pick-up and then as it gets proven it’ll get faster pick-up,” says Foster, Deloitte’s national director of technology, media and telecommunications.

Wi-Fi is on its way to overcoming one of its biggest challenges, he adds. The technology hasn’t yet shown itself capable of wide coverage, but the Toronto hotzone has the potential to prove Wi-Fi’s full benefits.

“The beauty behind something like this is you’ve got one wireless network, one password and no protocol and firewall issues.”

Using Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet from anywhere will make it particularly attractive to the city’s mobile workforce, says Alicia Wanless, an analyst at Seaboard Group in Toronto.

“Mobility for employees has increased a lot, so getting Internet access anywhere is quite exceptional,” says Wanless. “As a competitor, Toronto Hydro Telecom has really opened its doors and increased its visibility. It’s a really great move on their part, in terms of competing against the telcos.”

According to Surtees, certain civil servants at Industry Canada are believed to be “somewhat chagrined” with the reluctance of the major incumbents to roll out city-wide Wi-Fi coverage.

“It starts to make sense why incumbent phone companies such as Verizon in San Francisco and SBC in Philadelphia have their knickers in a knot about comparable muni-services down there; and why I think Bell, Telus, Rogers are going to be possibly freaking out over this,” he says.

“They have oodles of the same unlicensed spectrum [in the 2.4GHz band], but they’re not making use of that valuable spectrum. They haven’t rolled out any seamless, ubiquitous service. I say all power to Toronto Hydro Telecom for trying to do this.”

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