Telecommunications experts have been watching the developmentsat Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc. with avid anticipation ever sinceDavid Dobbin was named president of the Toronto Hydro Corp.subsidiary in August.
Yesterday’s announcement of plans to throw a blanket Wi-Fihotzone over the city came as no surprise. Toronto Hydro Telecom isaiming to cover the downtown core with Wi-Fi access points by theend of this year, starting with the financial district, and hopesto build out to its entire municipal jurisdiction within threeyears.
As chief operating officer of Telecom Ottawa Inc., Dobbin wasresponsible for installing a Wi-Fi network in the capital’sdowntown core. Since moving to Toronto, he’s been on a hiring spreethat helped lure two key players in the wireless field.
Ian Collins, former president of FibreWired Hamilton, wasappointed vice-president of operations and Sharyn Gravelle, aformer Microcell (Fido) executive, was named vice-president,wireless, and is responsible for the development, deployment andmaintenance of Toronto Hydro Telecom’s Wi-Fi network.
Collins was in charge of engineering a hybrid network of Wi-Fiand Wi-Max installations in the Hamilton-Wentworth region lastfall. The network was set up to support the Ontario Government’sinitiative to install electricity smart meters in every home andbusiness by 2010.
Providing a communications network for Toronto’s smart meterswas one of the clear business drivers for the city’s Wi-Fi hotzone,says Dobbin, whose previous work with Hydro One Telecom involvedsetting up municipal-area and wide-area networks in SouthernOntario before he joined Telecom Ottawa. “We needed a network tosend and receive data for the smart meters and here we are with oneof the largest fibre networks in the city – why not extend it withWi-Fi and read the meters that way?”
Dobbin says it was almost all too obvious. He says the secondimpetus behind the project came when the City of Toronto sold itsstreet lighting assets to Toronto Hydro Street Lighting Inc.,another subsidiary of Toronto Hydro Corp.
Toronto’s hotzone will see hundreds and then thousands of radioantennae attached to the city’s streetlight poles, which threwanother learning curveball at Dobbin.
“The Ottawa experience taught me how these things work, howthey’re engineered and what kind of traffic to expect,” he says.”But mounting the antennae on streetlight poles was an entirely newexperience.”
In Ottawa, Dobbin says the Wi-Fi network was built on the city’sexisting hydro poles, but the Toronto Hydro electric system doesnot allow radio attachments on hydro poles. “They don’t do it, sowe had no option.”
Another technical lesson he learned was how to push Wi-Fi’sreach further with a single access point, using multipleuni-directional antennae rather than one omni-directionalantenna.
Typically a Wi-Fi antenna has a range of anything between 15metres and 50 metres. In beta tests carried out at Maple LeafGardens, the Toronto Hydro Telecom team was getting almost 300metres, or up to the ninth floor of an office building orcondominium.
“With an omni-directional antenna, coverage spreads out like abubble and it’s generally short-range,” says Dobbin.
One access point might have as many as 16 antennae all pointedat very specific directions, which allows coverage to go a lotfurther, he says.
Alicia Wanless, an analyst with Toronto-based Seaboard Group,describes the entrepreneurial Dobbin as a visionary. “The grid hemade in downtown Ottawa was quite exceptional and it’s excitingthat he’s moved to Toronto. He really thinks big and is quitecapable of doing big things.”
But Dobbin is quick to play down his role in the project andpoints to his new engineering staff. “We brought in the wirelesstalent to get us through,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m afibre guy.” He says he wants Toronto Hydro Telecom to work with theestablished telcos such as Rogers, Bell and Telus, as a member ofthe Canadian Hotspot Roaming Alliance.
“Now is not the time for competitive chest-pumping,” saysDobbin.
“We’re building this to make it available in the city of Torontoand I think all of the carriers should be working together toensure [users] have access to the technology. We’re building thezone, let’s work together.”