It’s funny how technology has an insidious way of becoming an essential part of our lives. There is a dwindling population of individuals who still remember marvelling at the wonder of a flush toilet or an electric light. These days, it seems that the Internet has become another such service that we rely on more and marvel at less, as time passes. Wireless networking is rapidly becoming one of those indispensable services that we have come to associate with being essential to civilized living. Some cities are so convinced of this that they are comparing wireless network infrastructures to such commonplace public facilities as sidewalks and park benches. Why shouldn’t we be able to check our e-mail from a laptop or Pocket PC while enjoying our lunch on a bench in the park? This is the reality in the City of Fredericton, where the best-known Canadian example of the public facility approach to wireless networking can be found. Fredericton is the home city of the “Fred e-Zone” (www.fred-ezone.ca) Wi-Fi wireless network, which is offered as a free service by the City of Fredericton as one of its “Smart City” initiatives. The service is offered in strategic locations downtown as well as in a number of recreation facilities, libraries and other city-owned buildings. While Fred e-Zone’s users aren’t looking a gift horse in the mouth, there are a number of people in the telecommunications industry that are questioning the logic of such services being offered for free by local government while telecom companies such as Bell and Telus are trying to make a business out of selling wireless services.
There is a certain logic to Fredericton’s comparison of sidewalks and streetlights to wireless networking. Most public facilities are paid for out of general tax revenue and there is generally little or no opportunity to recover user fees from services such as streetlights and park benches. Many such facilities are strategically placed by local governments in the interest of attracting people or business to certain parts of the community. Virtually every city in North America has spent money on improvements to their downtown commercial districts. It’s not uncommon to see fancy wrought iron benches and tables, covered pedestrian refuges, ornate landscaping, period style streetlamps, fountains and public art placed in downtowns in an effort to revitalize and bring business back to the area. These investments have proven to be part of a successful strategy for turning derelict downtowns into popular local hang-outs, high-end business centres or tourist destinations.
Just another attraction
Similarly, wireless network services can be used by cities as another such attractive facility to lure people and businesses into an otherwise neglected area. It’s true that services such as Fred e-Zone have the potential to take some business away from telecommunications providers. These companies, however, are notorious “cream skimmers,” meaning that they tend to offer services only in areas where they can gain an instant subscriber base. Communities with a population of less than 100,000 are unlikely to have telco-operated hotspot wireless service available in locations other than hotels and major shopping centres. Telecom companies are also highly unlikely to invest in infrastructure for developing areas until after people and businesses return to the area.
The fact is that local governments have always been in the utility business and at various times have offered services at subsidized prices in competition with the private sector. Almost every Canadian city offers water and sewer services on a cost recovery basis. Many also offer telephone or electrical utility services in clear competition with the private sector.
The main focus of government is to offer baseline services that are designed to be highly affordable and accessible. Wi-Fi technology is cheap and easy to set up, so why should the citizens of smaller communities have to wait for a telco to notice them before having access to wireless networking? Even in Fredericton’s free wireless hotspot we note that Telus still offers Wi-Fi services. Clearly in such an environment, telcos can and will survive by offering faster or more available services to those who need it badly enough to pay the price.

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