Ontario’s push to use smart meters to manage electricity demand may lead to city-wide wireless Internet access in the City of Hamilton.

“We have to, as required by the province of Ontario, have smart meters installed,” said Art Leitch, president and chief executive of

>Hamilton Utilities Corp., the city’s electrical utility. Last year the provincial government mandated that 800,000 of the meters – which measure customers’ electrical consumption on an hourly basis and report the information back to help manage demand – be operational in the province by the end of 2007, with the rest of the province’s homes to be equipped by 2010.

Needing a way to capture data from the smart meters, Hamilton Utilities has decided to try out Wi-Fi wireless networking, which is widely used to operate hotspots that permit wireless access to the Internet in locations such as coffee shops and airport departure lounges.

The city will begin with a six-month trial in which the Wi-Fi network will be used to read 200 smart meters, some of them located in downtown Hamilton and some in suburban Stoney Creek, Leitch said.

Operated by Hamilton Utilities’ telecommunications unit, FibreWired, the Wi-Fi network will also support wireless Internet access. Ian Collins, president of FibreWired, said the network will offer Internet access in much the same way as hotspots do. A customer within range of the network would be able to open a Web browser and be directed to an authentication page to pay for Internet access using a credit card, he said.

Access to certain online resources provided by the city would be free through the service, Collins added.

Leitch said FibreWired’s extensive optical fibre network, which serves the entire city, offers an opportunity to roll out city-wide wireless access at much lower cost than would be the case if the network had to be built from scratch.

Hamilton expects to have some 100,000 smart meters installed by the end of 2007, he said. If the city proceeds with a city-wide Wi-Fi rollout and Internet access, it would join a small but growing list of North American municipalities offering widespread wireless access.

One of these is Fredericton, N.B., where a wireless service called the Fred eZone covers the downtown and several other parts of the city, and officials are planning to extend it eventually to cover the entire city. Like Hamilton, Fredericton had an existing city-wide fibre network that made adding wireless access relatively economical.

In the U.S., Philadelphia is one well-known example of cities offering widespread Internet access. Cerritas, Calif., was one of the earliest pioneers of the idea, noted Michael Rozender, an Oakville, Ont., consultant who specializes in wireless networking.

Rozender said he is pleased that utility telcos such as FibreWired are recognizing the potential for wireless networking. He said, however, that the meter-reading application by itself does not seem to justify the bandwidth of Wi-Fi. “They’re using what is essentially a broadband wireless network for what is essentially a narrowband application,” he said.

However, Rozender allowed that for a utility company with a telecommunications subsidiary such as FibreWired, installing the added bandwidth and using it for Internet access services may make sense.

Some utility telcos are showing interest in Wi-Fi, he noted – Telecom Ottawa operates a sizeable “hot zone” in downtown Ottawa – while others are paying little attention to it. Toronto Hydro Telecom, for instance, is concentrating mainly on providing high-speed data connections to corporate customers.

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