“Free” public Wi-Fi comes at a price, Calgarians find

“When something online is for free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” There’s debate about who coined this phrase, which having originated (it seems) in 2010 qualifies as an old saw by IT standards.

But there’s not much argument doubt about the meaning. Basically, anything that looks like a free online offer is actually a plan to get you – specifically your clicks, your eyes, your pocketbook – and make money by selling it to advertisers.

That meaning of “free” came across loud and clear to citizens of Calgary, Alberta recently. The city has embarked on a plan to offer free Wi-Fi access in parks and other public venues, including transit. The network has had a limited rollout and is already available in four city parks, thanks to Shaw Communications. Shaw is building out the infrastructure for the program, dubbed “ShawGuest,” in return for the right to advertise.

As reported in a story on, when a reporter for the Calgary Herald tested a pilot version of the project he found he had to enter his name, email address, postal code and phone number to get Wi-Fi access. That wasn’t all, though: a final step requires the user to agree to receive advertising from Shaw and affiliates.

“While frustrating, since Shaw is offering the service for free, it makes sense for the company to get something out of the deal,” says. Shaw says it is simply following a common standard in the industry.

The Toronto Transit Commission’s pilot project offering free Wi-Fi at its two busiest subway stations, St. George and Yonge/Bloor, drew some attention for a similar approach.

“Connecting to the service takes too long because you need to watch an advertisement first,” says. “By the time you finally access the TTC’s free Wi-Fi your subway train is probably already waiting at the platform.”

Free public Wi-Fi (actually free as well as advertising-driven) is still in the early stages in Canada, confined largely to a few large urban areas in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, as well as in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Right now there’s a mix of schemes, some offered by public entities like libraries and others by private-sector operators.

Andrew Brooks
Andrew Brooks
Andrew Brooks is managing editor of IT World Canada. He has been a technology journalist and editor for 20 years, including stints at Technology in Government, Computing Canada and other publications.

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