The city of Fredericton continues expanding its free wireless Internet access. “We’re close to 60 per cent of the community done,” says Don Fitzgerald, executive director of economic development for the New Brunswick capital city. In libraries, communities centres, along downtown sidewalks and even on boats docked along the Saint John River that bisects the city, anyone with a suitably equipped notebook or handheld computer can connect to the Internet free of charge.

But as far as Canadian cities are concerned, Fredericton is the exception. Though some U.S. cities, such as Philadelphia and several communities in California, have set up similar free wireless access schemes, the idea isn’t catching on in Canada. 

There are a few places where wireless access extends over wider areas than a coffee shop here or a hotel lobby there. In downtown Ottawa, a “hot zone” set up by Telecom Ottawa – the utility telco arm of the city’s electrical utility – provides Internet access over an area of several blocks. In Kamloops, B.C., Victoria-based Vcom Inc. and Navigata Inc., the North Vancouver-based Internet arm of SaskTel, are running a trial using WiMAX, the longer-range version of the Wi-Fi wireless standard.

But unlike Fredericton’s Fred eZone, these are not municipal government initiatives.

While some other municipalities are dabbling in wireless access services, few seem to believe they should be in the business of offering free city-wide connectivity.

Calgary, for instance, has set up a small cluster of wireless hotspots as part of its Wireless City initiative. Within an area of a few blocks downtown, anyone with the right equipment can connect to the Internet free. But Wireless City’s mandate is to showcase technology from local companies, says Richard Belzil, director of the initiative, not to provide free Internet access. Belzil says there are no plans to expand the hotspot offering. “The notion of a large municipal Internet service probably is best left to the carriers,” he says.

In Hamilton, Ont., the municipally-owned Hamilton Utilities Corp. and its telecommunications unit FibreWired are building a wireless network that the utility plans to use to read electric meters. FibreWired will use the same network to offer wireless Internet access. Ian Collins, FibreWired’s president, says his company primarily will wholesale wireless services to local Internet service providers who wish to make them available to their subscribers. FibreWired will also offer access directly, but for a fee, he says.

User fees provide cash flow to maintain and upgrade services, Collins says, while free services typically aren’t sustainable. “When things are free or paid through the notion of grants, the infrastructure tends to wither and die on the vine.” And he adds that FibreWired is not set up to deal with a high-volume residential market. Like most utility telcos, its major business is selling high-bandwidth services to businesses.

Contrast Collins’ and Belzil’s views with Fitzgerald’s perspective that broadband wireless is becoming a basic utility service. “I’m sure that when sidewalks came in vogue, some people had a question about whether it’s worthwhile for cities to invest in sidewalks,” he says. By setting up the Fred eZone, Fitzgerald says, Fredericton is creating “a more productive environment in which to work” and an “enabled community that doesn’t have a digital divide issue.”

Michael Rozender, an Oakville, Ont., consultant who specializes in wireless technology, says municipalities are grappling with the need for broadband wireless access and the question of how it should be provided. “Yes, it’s becoming a utility,” he says. “The $64,000 question is, is it really the municipality … that should be providing it?”

Rozender – who says he is working with a couple of Canadian municipalities that are currently studying options for widespread wireless access – says configuring and running wireless access networks is a challenge for municipal governments, and one likely option is partnerships between municipalities and telecommunications carriers, who can provide the expertise to run the services – which probably means fees will be charged for the service.

Working with existing carriers is also a way municipalities potential accusations of unfair competition. U.S. carriers have protested the creation of municipally run wireless networks, particularly in Philadelphia, where Verizon Communications Inc. and others backed state legislation requiring municipalities to give private companies the first shot at offering wireless access.

No such legislation has been proposed in Canada, but private companies might not like governments offering free services, and municipalities must be careful about picking fights with telcos, Rozender says.

Other concerns include security and responsibility for misuse. Fitzgerald says Fredericton doesn’t consider this any more of an issue for the city than it would be for any service provider. “We don’t promise a secure network, we provide a port to the Internet,” he says. “We comply with all the legislation.” 

Rozender notes, though, that if municipally operated free wireless access were found to be allowing spammers an easy route into the Internet, it could be a serious black eye for the government involved, and a free network open to all could be hard to police. Even if the service is free, Rozender says, municipalities need to require some sort of authentication so they know who users are.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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