Toronto to use streetlights in city-wide Wi-Fi rollout

TORONTO – The City of Toronto Tuesday announced a Wi-Fi service that could be enough to entice some Torontonians away from wireline Internet service provided by cable companies and incumbents, according to Toronto Hydro Telecom president David Dobbin.

The service will cover an area that spans east to west from Spadina Avenue to Jarvis Street and north to south from Bloor Street to Front Street – the downtown core, or roughly six square kilometres.

Toronto Hydro Telecom, the telecommunications arm of Toronto Hydro Corp., will be responsible for the service, which will be made available via a series of access points attached to streetlighting poles. Toronto Hydro bought the street-light system last year for $60 million, making it possible for the poles to serve as convenient Wi-Fi transmitters. An RFP has been issued for the equipment to be attached to the poles and a preliminary level of service is expected for June of this year.

The first zone to receive service will be Toronto’s financial district, an area which covers the Toronto Stock Exchange. Four other zones will follow and the entire downtown will receive coverage by the end of 2006. City officials expressed an interest in a Wi-Fi offering last year, but for the much smaller area of Nathan Philips square, a public meeting place outside City Hall.

“Today’s announcement signals a new era of telecommunications in Toronto,” said Mayor David Miller, who compared the downtown initiative to municipal Wi-Fi efforts like those underway in San Francisco, Philadelphia and London, U.K.

Other Canadian municipalities have rolled out their own public Wi-Fi services, like Fredericton and Waterloo, Ont., but Toronto’s effort marks the largest to date. Ottawa also has a Wi-Fi zone which rolled out in 2004 when Dobbin was the chief operating officer at Ottawa Hydro.

The Ottawa zone, while much smaller than the level of coverage planned for Toronto, has been successful to date, said Dobbin. Some local Ottawa subscribers have migrated from DSL and cable services and adopted Wi-Fi as their main gateway to the Internet, he said, adding that he hopes the same situation will develop in Toronto.

IDC Canada Ltd. telecommunications analyst Lawrence Surtees cited a “rising dissatisfaction” for the service levels provided by established Internet providers, which may result in a number of defections.

“How many people will come of the woodwork and embrace it? It’s a bit early, but I think the municipalities that are looking to do this may be pleasantly surprised,” said Surtees.

No pricing options for the Toronto service have been announced yet, but Dobbin said they will be competitive with access rates available from providers like Bell Canada and Rogers. A range of pay-per-use or monthly billing packages should be available and the service will be free for its first six months of operation.

Dobbin dismissed existing Wi-Fi service available in Toronto, noting that there are fewer than 200 hotspots available and coverage is patchy. “That’s hardly well-served,” he said.

Toronto Hydro’s fibre-optic network will serve as the backbone for the Wi-Fi service, which will be compatible with wireless standards 802.11b and 802.11g. “Every street corner, every restaurant, every building will have coverage,” said Dobbin, adding that the network is capable of achieving speeds of up to 54 mbps.

“When you look at what we’re announcing today and what’s out there already, there is no comparison,” added Miller.

The Ontario Government has mandated that homes in the province switch to smart readers for energy consumption by 2010. Dobbin said that Toronto Hydro’s Wi-Fi service could serve as a means to expedite that for city residents.

The Wi-Fi network may be expanded over the next three years to cover a greater area than just the downtown core, said Dobbin, but Toronto Hydro is waiting to see how the initial rollout is received by users.

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