Different approaches to muni-WiFi

Now here is a tale of two cities and their WiFi systems: Perhaps it is not quite a case of "it is the best of times, it is the worst of times"--the best of times in City of Fredericton, New Brunswick, and the worst of times for Toronto--but still these two Canadian cities are separated not only by more than 1,000 miles, but also by a different approach to muni-WiFi. ITWorldCanada's Nestor Arellano offers a fascinating study of the contrast between the two.

A month from now, users of Toronto's recently launched One Zone, Canada's largest WiFi network, will begin paying up to $29 a month for Internet access. Residents of the wind-swept City of Fredericton, however, will continue to enjoy free access to 'Fred e Zone', their city's older, if weaker, WiFi network.

The WiFi divide between the two cities resides not in technology or funding but rather in vision and political will. Andrew Clement, professor of information studies at the Knowledge Media Design Institute of the University of Toronto, says the reason for the difference is: "Fredericton had the political will to stick to their objective of providing WiFi as a public service; our city did not." Indeed, according to Clement, the two cities' quests for a WiFi network were driven by divergent "visions and ambitions."

There is no room here to recapitulate the path each city took to its WiFi destination, but here is a very brief summary: In 1997, Fredericton was paying very high fees to a telecom company for connectivity because there was no competition in their area and no market pressure to drive prices down. The result: The city of 80,000 residents decided, in 2000, that their city should become its own wireless service provider. The city used about $450,000 to put more than 1,200 802.11g APs on top of utility poles, and any resident of the city may connect for free.

Toronto Hydro Telecom, on the other hand, opted for a "sustainable", paid-for WiFi model for One Zone because the corporation "is not a part of the city or the public-private environment and has an obligation to its shareholders to turn in a profit," says an officer of the company. The company purchased light posts within the WiFi zone for $60 million and placed WiFi gear on every fourth or fifth pole. THT is aiming at $2 million profit from most corporate users and hopes to recoup its investments within a year.

For more:
- see Nestor Arellano's ITWorldCanada report

MORE: Staying north of the border: Vancouver, B.C., city staffers say no to free WiFi network, advising city council that the network should be left to private enterprise. Report

ALSO: See WiFi Networking News Glenn Fleishman's round-up of metro-WiFi.