Saskatchewan to offer free Wi-Fi access

The Saskatchewan government announced Monday its plans to create what it called the country’s largest wireless Internet network, which will allow the province’s four largest cities’ residents and visitors to access free-of-charge Wi-Fi in the downtown core and post-secondary institutions.

Two-hundred-fifty access points (approximately one per block) will boost business travel to the province, according to Richard Murray, the executive director of policy and planning for the Government of Saskatchewan’s Information Technology Office. Local businesses will also get a boost, as the Wi-Fi will be implemented in certain business districts in Regina and Saskatoon.

One of the main drivers of this initiative, said Murray, was the recent Youth Summit in Saskatoon, where the youths clamoured for free Wi-Fi. He said that it is a government priority to attract and retain youth in the province.

Frost & Sullivan‘s industry analyst for the mobile communications group, Eduardo Kibel, said the network is a savvy business move on the government’s part, as it will up the cities’ high-tech credentials and streamline business practices.

“It’s very good for the economy,” he said. An added bonus is the opportunity to encourage doing things online that were formerly done through a real-world government agency.

He said, “It will make people more productive — they can do everything from renew their driver’s license to register their child. It will improve efficiency and the quality of life.” Such a strategy is becoming increasingly common, according to IDC Canada‘s vice-president of communications research, Lawrence Surtees, who said that the announcement is further evidence of government’s using Wi-Fi to provide improved connectivity.

This type of move can give the province a boost above its provincial brethren. Said Kibel: “They’re basically trying to increase the level of the population’s knowledge and training in the online areas so that they have a higher status compared to other provinces.”

The network will be backed to central points, with between 10 and 100MB back to the Internet. It will be best suited to non-intensive casual use, said Murray. “It’s not quite high-speed,” he said.

The government will be partnering with SaskTel on this initiative, and has a speedy implementation schedule. Murray said that he is confident that the free Wi-Fi should be ready come May or June of this year, as it is getting started right away. “Wi-Fi is a pretty known technology,” according to Murray. “All you have to do is mount your access points on your poles and you’re up and running.”

The cost of the project is also a seemingly low $1.3 million, with annual operating costs of $339,000. “The area it covers is very small, with a population one-fifth the size of Toronto. They won’t reach maximum capacity like they do (in Toronto),” said Kibel.

Surtees said that both the price and the ease of implementation could also be attributed to the type of network it is. “The municipal Wi-Fi is different than the Toronto model of the municipal mesh network. (Cost and lack of speed) come from ubiquitous Wi-Fi access — if you’re putting it on every fourth streetlight,” he said.

The government and SaskTel might be wise to save their pennies, as, according to Kibel, he thinks there could be a big purchase in the works with the upcoming auction of advanced wireless spectrum in 2008. Kibel said, “This could be a move. SaskTel could be initiating a path to launch wireless service full-blown.” Such a move, said Kibel, could see Wi-Fi become more common in rural areas, and SaskTel eventually start to charge businesses in the previously free downtown areas for Wi-Fi use once they were hooked. Murray, however, said that the service will remain a free service forever.

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