City of Waterloo endorses pay-per-use Wi-Fi service

The City of Waterloo is trying to scare up new Internet users with a Halloween launch of the UpTown Wi-Fi Zone, provided by local firm Atria Networks Inc.

The zone covers an area of approximately 1.5 sq-km, and includes the city’s business core and government buildings.

Waterloo began offering Wi-Fi earlier this year by turning its largest library into a hotspot. The plan was always to start small and gradually increase the wireless footprint to incorporate more areas of the city, said Councillor Mark Whaley.

“We started with the library in the spring and now we’re rolling it out to the entire (uptown) core. Our anticipation is that it (will) continue to roll out to the whole city and, in fact, the entire region of Waterloo,” he said.

But where library access, also provided by Atria, is free, the Wi-Fi zone will be a pay-per-use and subscription model. Users will be charged $4.95 an hour, $9.95 a day, $19.95 a week or $29.95 a month.

Unlike other municipal hotspots such as Fredericton’s eZone, the UpTown zone isn’t actually a local government endeavour. The City of Waterloo has endorsed the zone, but it is essentially a commercial venture owned and operated by Atria.

On the surface, a “free” service may have more appeal than a subscriber-based hotspot, but all Wi-Fi offerings have their shortcomings, said Michael Rozender, principal of Oakville firm Rozender Consultants International.

Wireless services that are provided “free” by municipal governments may irk constituents since they’ll end up paying for it anyway through taxes – especially when they may already be subscribing to a commercial service.

“There are a lot of taxpayers out there that don’t want to see their dollars go to fund broadband wireless services,” he said.

U.S. cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco – both of which are in stages of Wi-Fi deployments – have found themselves embroiled in disputes from commercial carriers like Verizon who see the provision of free service as an encroachment on their business. Philadelphia ultimately decided to offer a pay model and awarded a contract to Earthlink earlier this month. The company will charge local residents about US$20 a month for wireless access.

But commercial models may be undone by the sheer volume of free Wi-Fi that is already available. “Pay-per-use is dying,” said Rozender.

Billing for service through credit card payments may find itself replaced by another sales strategy where providers bundle Wi-Fi minutes into home delivery broadband services, he said.

President of Atria Networks Steve McCartney recognizes that competitors may enter his territory and offer their own brand of Wi-Fi service. Rather than fighting a turf war, McCartney said he hopes he can reach network-sharing agreements like the one that already exists between Bell Canada, Telus and Rogers.

McCartney said Atria is open to providing Wi-Fi service in the neighbouring communities it serves: Kitchener, Cambridge and Guelph.

“In terms of doing the downtown areas, (Waterloo) is the first,” he said. “We need to have similar conversations with the other (municipalities). It’s not that we need the cities’ permission. The reason we came to Waterloo is that there was such enthusiasm from their downtown business group that the city got behind it.”

McCartney added that the next step may be deploy WiMax, which can provide a wider connectivity footprint than Wi-Fi. “We see WiMax as essential as we get into rural (areas) and small towns, because W-Fi is too prohibitive.”

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