TORONTO — A group of small businesses is setting up a free wireless Internet hotspot in Toronto, hoping to give potential customers a reason to congregate in their area.

Web surfers who log in along Spadina Rd. within a block of Lonsdale Rd. (north of St. Clair Ave.) will get one hour of free

Internet access — after watching one minute of ads.

The Forest Hill Village Business Improvement Area, which charges an annual fee to its 67 corporate members, paid Mississauga, Ont.-based Wireless Friendly Inc. about $7,000 to set up the hotspot.

It provides 11 Mbps connectivity along a two-block commercial stretch of Spadina Rd. between Thelma Ave. and Montclair Ave. using IEEE 802.11b WiFi technology. The Internet connection is 1.5 Mbps using business-class digital subscriber line (DSL) service.

Mark Tauschek, chief operating officer of Wireless Friendly, said his company would increase the Internet connection speed if there is enough demand. He said the hotspot now can accommodate five to six people using bandwidth-intensive applications, and up to 25 simultaneous users who are simply downloading e-mail or using other low-bandwidth applications.

Although an 802.11g access point would provide 54 Mbps (compared to the 11 Mbps provided by 802.11b), Tauschek does not anticipate the company will upgrade the hotspot to 802.11g.

He said if service is slow, the bottleneck would in the Internet connection, not in the WiFi access point.

“”If we do add 802.11g, it would sort of be overkill,”” he said Tuesday at the launch of the hotspot at What a Bagel, a food and coffee shop on Spadina Rd. north of Lonsdale Rd.

In order to use the service, users need a notebook or personal digital assistant with an 802.11b card. The service does not provide wired equivalent privacy (WEP) or any other type of security. Tauschek said it is too difficult to manage WEP when the purpose of the service is to allow users to log on quickly.

Wireless Friendly, which is providing the service under its HotSpotz brand, will eventually charge advertisers money. End-users will never pay to log on, though they will have to sit through one minute of advertising.

For the first year, advertising will be free to members of the Forest Hill BIA, which is a boon to proprietors like Leonor Mowry, owner of Village Yoga.

Mowry said she’s excited at the prospect of getting free advertising through the hotspot, although she does not believe any of her clients would use wireless Internet while on Village Yoga premises.

The area covered by the hotspot includes several coffee shops, two framing stores, banks, a hardware store and a barber shop.

Forest Hill has some of the most expensive homes in Toronto, but local shops have recently experienced a drop in sales due to the combined impact of the SARS outbreak and the Aug. 14-15 blackout, said Patrick McCaully, communications director of the Forest Hill Village BIA.

Some firms’ sales dropped by as much as 30 per cent, McCaully said, prompting some companies to approach the BIA asking whether anything could be done.

Officials at other BIAs in the Toronto area are going to watch the Forest Hill hotspot closely, said John Kiru, president of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, which represents about 19,000 Toronto businesses in 45 BIAs.

“”This is a pilot project,”” Kiru said. “”We’ll see how this goes.””

Tauschek said he is talking with other BIAs but did not want to speculate on whether any new hotspots would emerge.

But Wireless Friendly plans to build more free hotspots.

“”Our vision is ubiquitous free wireless Internet access across the country,”” Tauschek said.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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