TORONTO — The City of Fredericton, rubbing shoulders with the likes of enterprise giants such as Bombardier, Bell and Dell, took home the Judges’ Innovation Award at Tuesday’s Canadian Information Productivity

Awards for its city-wide Wi-Fi network, dubbed Fred e-zone.

Although a few other Canadian communities also offer municipally hosted wireless networks, the New Brunswick capital is the first to offer such services for free – a concept most people still don’t quite trust, according to Fredericton IT manager Maurice Gallant. “”Some people say to us, ‘Free? What does that mean?’”” said Gallant. “”Come to Fredericton: you’ll see it really is free.””

The city currently has 110 Cisco 802.11g access points to provide connectivity via Wi-Fi-enabled notebooks or PDAs in a variety of public areas.

“”We’ve got about 40 per cent of the city covered,”” Gallant said. “”We’re trying to guess where people are likely to open a notebook so we get the biggest hit for our buck.””

Fredericton’s city council has also recently approved in principal another phase of the project, which will be twice as big as the first phase and is slated for completion by the end of 2006. It has provided $150,000 for the first phase. Gallant expects it will approve another $300,000 for the next phase.

“”Sure, you’ll be able to find a place where there is no coverage, but the experience we want to give you is you’ll always be connected,”” said Gallant, who is also president of e-Novations ComNet Inc., the not-for-profit municipally owned corporation licensed as a non-dominant carrier by the CRTC.

The project started in 2000 when the municipal government started to look for cost-efficient ways to provide broadband connectivity to its 650 employees in 20 locations. At that time, such service — affordable and widely available — didn’t exist in the region, said Gallant, so the city decided to take matters into its own hands, building a 22-km fibre optic community network which it extended using Motorola Canopy long-distance wireless technology deployed through access points hosted on seven towers throughout the city.

“”If you look back to 2000 we (Canadian municipalities) were probably all in the same boat,”” he said. “”As a small municipality we had connectivity needs, we had facilities around town, we were leasing circuits, we had bits and pieces of available technology and we needed to make a better story of that.””

Mike Richards, vice-president of operations for e-Novations, said finding the right partners was key to the project.

“”A lot of the vendors did not see or agree with our vision,”” he says. “”In fact, some we approached said it won’t work, it’s not designed for that, what are you doing, and the vendors we’re working with now all share the same vision.””

Finding the right technology, though, can be equally important. According to Brian Sharwood, a principal with Montreal-based SeaBoard Group, Cisco’s strengths are in back-end software at the control level. So, for example, if the user wants to be able to give certain packets priority over other types — say voice before data — it can do so easily.

“”If you just want to provide basic service you can do that really cheaply, but that’s the advantage of the Cisco products,”” said Sharwood.

Rod Murphy, senior account manager at Cisco Canada, agreed.

“”It’s the intelligence associated with it, so it’s not just limited to deploying the bandwidth to the constituents,”” he said. “”They have the ability to partition that infrastructure for themselves, so it’s leveraging the investment. But the foundation had to be in place, and ultimately, what I like about the wireless deployment is it actually shows the investment that was made in the infrastructure to the constituents.””

Although Fredericton is using its free wireless network and lower broadband connectivity costs as an economic development tool to attract businesses to the region, Sharwood said its value to citizens shouldn’t be underestimated.

“”I think it’s a factor for tourism, it’s a factor for the livability of a city, and it’s a factor that makes people connect with their municipal government,”” he said. “”A lot of smaller towns and municipal governments want to connect more with people, and it’s not that expensive.

“”We haven’t really had anything like that since city decided they would pick up garbage; we haven’t had a new municipal offering for probably 50 years that’s tangible.””

Other public sector CIPA winners include the DND’s Director of Land Command & Information (diamond award of excellence); B.C.’ Interior Health Authority (gold award of excellence, mobile solutions); Quebec’s Emploi-Quebec (gold award, customer care); and the Ontario Ministry of Finance (gold award, organizational transformation); Silver awards went to Nunavut’s Department of Health and Social Services; Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources; the University Health Network; the Ontario Ministry of Transportation; and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

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