Police concerns, poor street light poles snarl Toronto Wi-Fi project

TORONTO – Toronto Hydro Telecom Thursday said its Wi-Fi hot zone for the downtown core has been delayed several months due to unworthy street light poles and police concerns about Internet crime.

The company originally announced the multi-phase project in March, and the first area to receive coverage, the city’s financial district, was scheduled to go live in June. The new date for that area, according to Toronto Hydro Telecom execs, will be Sept. 7.

The delay is due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, said vice-president of wireless Sharyn Gravelle. Toronto Hydro had bought the street light system from the City of Toronto – including 160,000 light poles – for $60 million. The company’s original plan was to use the poles to attach wireless access points. That plan hit a snag when it was discovered that not all of the available poles were suitable candidates.

“When we selected the financial district as the first district, we were quite surprised that . . . a very low percentage of them had 24/7 power at the pole,” said Gravelle. Upgrades and retrofits for the affected poles brought about a delay.

It also became apparent that not every area of the city that had been targeted for Wi-Fi had the requisite number of poles. The area around the Eaton Centre, for example, is completely bereft of street lights since there is already enough ambient light from stores, displays and tourist attractions. The area had to be rezoned slightly, said Gravelle, to take advantage of light poles on neighbouring side streets.

The second major reason for the delay was the number of concerns that law enforcement had raised around illegal or unsavory use of the Wi-Fi Internet service. The first six months of service will be available to Toronto residents and visitors free of charge, but Toronto Hydro Telecom was asked to devise a way to trace the network’s users. The solution was to text-message a login ID and password directly to users once they have supplied a cell phone number.

“It doesn’t mean we’re tracking, it doesn’t mean we’re adverse to privacy,” said Gravelle, but the company had to come up with a user authentication process to satisfy the authorities.

“There were some concerns that were raised with police services” such as the possibility that criminals would use the network to communicate with one another or prey on minors, she said. “We had dialogues with these folks because we want to take that very seriously.”

Once a billing system goes into effect after the free six-month trial, the company will attempt to provide a login system that incorporates land-line and e-mail verification as well as the existing cell-phone system, said Gravelle.

The third major issue before Toronto Hydro Telecom was concerns about electro magnetic fields and their possible health effects, said Gravelle. She said that Toronto Public Health is now satisfied that the network complies with safety guidelines, including those from Health Canada and Industry Canada, and has deemed it “low risk.”

Any project of this scope is beset with infrastructure challenges, said IDC Canada Ltd. telecom analyst Lawrence Surtees. However, Toronto Hydro should have demonstrated some foresight concerning the phone pole situation. “You’d think, being a power company, they would have had that figured out in the beginning.”

The fact that Toronto Hydro felt it necessary to comply with law enforcement over free Internet access issues could set a precedent, added Surtees. He said he’s not aware of any other free Wi-Fi service, such as those operating in restaurants or airports, that has similar login strictures for its users.

“Lawful Access is a huge issue,” said Surtees, referring to a proposed bill that would give law enforcement the power to investigate user records held by ISPs. “It’s front and centre in the minds of police.”

Gravelle said that the access framework is primarily a precursor to a billing system which would charge users via credit cards or on an ongoing account basis once the free trial comes a conclusion six months after launch.

Gravelle said she could not provide an answer on the number of paid users the Wi-Fi network would require in order to turn a profit. “It’s very much a greenfield environment, so there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Toronto Hydro Telecom still hopes to expand the network to incorporate all of Toronto, an area which covers about 600 sq.-km., ideally in the next three years, she said.

The network is also designed to handle networking technologies like WiMax, which has been identified as a possible successor to Wi-Fi, and Flash-OFDM.

According to execs, the network could be one day be used to transmit corporate data or for applications like voice over IP and video over IP.

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