Toronto, Calgary may join Intel Wi-Fi project for cities

Two Canadian cities have indicated their interest in a vendor-led program to implement wireless infrastructure in communities worldwide, according to Intel Corp.

While Calgary and Toronto have expressed their desire to participate

in Intel’s Digital Communities Initiative, which has 13 proof-of-concepts (POC) around the globe, there are no Canadian cities involved in the initial pilot project.

“There are two communities that are interested and are at varying stages of engagement,” said Anand Chandrasekher, vice-president and director of Intel sales and marketing group, speaking at a teleconference Thursday about the project. “There’s nothing set in stone yet. There’s lots of interest and discussions ongoing.”

There are, however, a number of wireless initiatives in cities and governments across the country. The City of Toronto, for example, recently issued a request-for-proposal to put in a public access wireless hotspot on a six-month pilot basis at Nathan Philips Square, a city official confirmed Thursday. The RFP has now closed but the City has yet to reward the contract to the successful bidder as the proposals are under review by the City’s legal and purchasing departments, said Michael Franey, director of computer operations and telecommunications services for the City of Toronto. The City expects to implement the project before the end of the summer.

“We have to look at the business case to see if the cost of the service warrants it beyond the pilot period,” said Franey. “This is something that’s experimental. If there’s no business case to do that we’d have to reconsider our plans.”

Once implemented, anybody within the Nathan Philips Square vicinity will be able to use their mobile laptops or PDA devices to check e-mail or browse the Internet. Franey said the City will try to offer the service free-of-charge or at minimal cost to taxpayers.

Cost of wireless access, however, became a contentious issue recently when Philadelphia’s city government — one of the 13 POC cities that participated in Intel’s pilot project — decided to sell wireless access to downtown residents last year. Lobbyists in the U.S. are currently pressuring Congress to decide whether governments or private companies should be selling Internet access.

In Western Canada, the City of Calgary launched a federally- and provincially-funded initiative in 2003 called Wireless City, which includes four hotspots in the downtown core. These include the Calgary Municipal Building, the W.R. Castell Central Library, Olympic Plaza and Stephen Avenue Walk. Other wireless initiatives include the City of Fredericton, which offers free wireless Internet across the city, and the City of Hamilton, which is currently engaged in a six-month trial in which Wi-Fi networks are being used to read 200 smart meters. Hamilton plans to install 100,000 smart meters, which measure customers’ electrical consumption per hour and report it back to the Hamilton Utilities Corporation, by the end of 2007.

Countries involved in the initial pilot project include the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Hungary, Germany, Israel, Monaco and Brazil. City officials from Taipei, Taiwan, Cleveland, Ohio and Corpus Christi, Tex. were on hand to discuss their experience with the project in their cities. The initiative, funded in part by Intel and several other large tech vendors including Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Inc. and Microsoft Corp., aims to help cities improve and expand their municipal services through the use of wireless technology.

“Intel’s role in this initiative is providing the technology in the form of Wi-Fi and Wi-Max,” said Chandrasekher. “Proof-of-concepts are moving from unwiring to delivering mobilized services.”

Applications of the technology include automating mobile workers such as meter readers and building inspectors and enabling emergency service workers to remotely monitor vehicle locations.

The City of Taipei, for example, has equipped 63 subway stations with access points and .8 sq.-km. of the 202 sq.-km. city is covered. Taipei plans to cover 90 per cent of the city by year-end and 100 per cent of it by early next year. Out of a population of 2.6 million citizens, currently 75,000 people are using the service with an increase of 200 users per week.

“We have embarked on a very ambitious plan to establish the first-every wireless city in the world by installing 10,000 access points in densely-populated areas,” said Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou. “It’s not difficult to have wireless in MacDonald’s or Starbucks but if you want to try to cover a city, it’s not that easy.”

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