Wi-Fi company to tackle Canada with thousands of free hotspots

 Wi-Fi hotspots are few and far between in this country – only about 3,500 compared to 65,000 in the U.S., according to one source.

However, Vex Corp., a Brazilian-based Wi-Fi marketing company, vowed Tuesday to more than double the number in the country in 18 months by signing up organizations with an ad-sponsored, free service model.

“Wi-Fi should be free, and it should be everywhere,” said Asif Khan, country manager of Vex Canada, who wants a network with 5,000 hotpots across the country in hotels, franchise chains and airports by the end of 2010.

The company will do site assessment and installation of access points from Cisco Systems, while customer is responsible for the broadband connection.

To kick off the Vex Canada, Khan announced a deal to put a Wi-Fi network covering the stadium where the Canadian Football League Hamilton Tiger-Cats play, so fans can use Wi-Fi-equipped smartphones during games.

Although Khan doesn’t have an advertiser yet to pay for the service, the plan is to have the network running in time for the Sept. 7 Labor Day football game between the Tiger Cats and their arch-rivals, the Toronto Argonauts.

Vex Corp., which has been opening hotspots in South America, Latin America and Europe since 2002. According to the company’s Web site, it has more than 3,600 hotspots in 34 countries including chains such as McDonald’s (134 in Brazil alone), which makes the Canadian goal quite ambitious.

There will also be a different model here than in other countries. About 70 per cent of the locations Vex sets up are fee-for-service, Khan said. However, getting Canadians to pay for Wi-Fi service so far has been a bust, he believes, which is why the company is going for an ad-supported service.

Under this model, Vex Canada will seek out chains, hotels and other locations it believes will want service, lining up exclusive advertisers where necessary. For a chain, the launch Web page will only have the chain’s logo. For a public location such as a stadium or airport, Vex will sign up an exclusive advertiser so the user isn’t bombarded with ads.

Users have to register online to access the wireless service. On logging in to a browser there will be either an ad or the logo of the café or restaurant. However, those using a smartphone to check mail or SMS messages won’t see ads.

Relatively speaking, hotspots aren’t hot in Canada. According to JiWire, a Vex competitor that public Wi-Fi hotspots around the world, as of July 6 there were 3,514 free or paid hotspots in this country. By comparison, there were over 65,000 in the U.S., 26,000 in the U.K. and 25,000 in France.

In Canada, public Wi-Fi providers range range from Atria Networks, which provides free access in some southern Ontario libraries, the city of Fredericton, N.B., which has free access covering parts of the downtown  and Cogeco Data Services, which runs a paid Wi-Fi service in downtown Toronto. Bell Canada, Rogers Communications and Telus act as Wi-Fi providers to various outlets, usually on a pay-for-use basis. In June Starbucks began offering two hours of free Wi-Fi service to Bell Internet subscribers.

FatPort, an independent Calgary-based provider, sells connectivity through hotels, restaurants and shopping malls.

But the major telcos and cablecos here haven’t been as aggressive as their counterparts in the U.S., where telcos like AT&T visibly signify their Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes and airports as a service to wireless subscribers. That’s one of the reasons why Vex has avoided that country, Khan said.

“No one’s ever tried to come into the Canadian market and tried to build a national network,” he said. “I think it’s an opportune time to do that. You have a huge consumer demand for Wi-Fi as driven by smartphones.”

One Wi-Fi aggregator claimed that smartphone access in U.S. airports it serves has jumped in the past two years from virtually nothing to 24 per cent, Khan said.

Hence the Hamilton stadium deal. “We’re no longer limited to the traditional airport/hotel/coffee shop, which is how people envision Wi-Fi,” he said. “It should be the stadium, the gas station, the grocery store.”

Tania Da Fonseca, Vex Canada’s operations manager, said planning for covering Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium is in the early stages, but it calls for 11 access points and two bridges. The bridges are needed because the fibre Internet connection only goes to one side of the structure.

“It’s definitely difficult with the concrete and metal,” she said of the challenge of bringing wireless to a stadium.But it’s been done before in the U.S.

According to a Cisco Systems official, the expected rain, sleet and snow won’t be a serious problem. Wi-Fi in North America operates in unlicenced 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz frequencies that are work well outdoors, said Chris Kozup, Cisco’s senior manager of mobility solutions. While there will be “minor degradation of signals, “the effects of weather have a far less effect on performance or coverage than the effects of metal or walls.”

Khan is a graduate of the University of Waterloo who has had extensive experience in sales with IT companies.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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