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Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi, Everywhere

More and more Canadian cities are launching wireless networks. Are they good tools for business?


May 1, 2007  


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Earlier this year, the government of Sask-atchewan announced plans to deploy a wireless Internet network in the province’s four largest cities, namely Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Regina and Moose Jaw.

This network — called “Saskatchewan! Connected” — will cover downtown cores and post-secondary institution campuses, and provide free wireless Internet access to residents and visitors.

Parts of the network might even have been lit up by the time you read this.

Saskatchewan is not unique in pursuing a municipal wireless Internet strategy. According to the Strategy Institute, a Toronto-based company that researches such things, municipal networks are up and running or in the planning stages in some 250 municipalities across North America.

A quick search of the Internet (from a wireless device, even) will turn up examples across Canada. Municipal network initiatives are underway in Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto, Montral and Fredericton, to name just a few places.

Not hot spots

These networks differ from the so-called “hot spots” one finds in many coffee shops, airports and convention centres in that they are designed to provide contiguous, blanket coverage of a district or an entire municipality.

This allows users to move from place to place without having to sign on to a new access point. They can even access the Internet from a park or the back of a cab.

Saskatchewan obviously feels the benefits this network will bring to the province will more than justify the $1.3 million it will cost to set up, and $339,000 per year it will cost to operate.

Part of that benefit will be realized through new applications that the province and the four cities involved can deploy to make it easier to manage their own operations.

Possible applications include remote water meter reading, dispatch and monitoring of field service personnel such as hydro crews and garbage collectors, connectivity for smart parking meters, and so on.

A competitive edge?

But proponents also cite such municipal networks as evidence that their city is forward-thinking, high-tech friendly, and serious about attracting new business and investment. While all of this may be true it’s almost impossible to quantify the impact that such networks will have.

Can any city’s government truly claim that a new business located its headquarters in the municipality because of the presence of metropolitan-area Wi-Fi?

Has such a citywide network been proven to contribute to the calibre of graduates from the local university?

In trying to answer these questions, I suggest we look at the current debate over global warming and climate change.

One forward-thinking client of mine, in another industry, has decided not to wait for the debate to be settled, and has been working for a number of years now to reduce the environmental footprint of its products and its operations. The rationale for taking action NOW is that by the time we find out whether climate change is real, it will be too late to do anything about it.

Those cities building municipal networks have also decided against waiting to see if such public wireless Internet infrastructure attracts businesses and investment because if it does, they do not want those economic benefits to go elsewhere.

But let’s suppose that businesses are interested in these metropolitan area networks. If they’re to be truly useful, they must be trusted so security is important. So too is ease of use — especially for visitors to the city.

Those are both issues that the network builders must address. Meantime, companies whose employees may be interested in using these networks have to set policies on using them. For example, are such networks acceptable for web browsing, but not secure enough to support remote access or corporate email? And how does one find out?

Wireless Cities Summit

A good place to start may be the North American Wireless Cities Summit, being held in Vancouver on June 19th and 20th. The summit is being organized by the Strategy Institute, which promises case studies from Vancouver, Montral and Fredericton plus other cities in the United States and around the world.

While this conference is focussed on helping municipalities develop their own wireless networks, the experiences of cities that have already taken the plunge should prove very informative.

More information on the North American Wireless Cities Summit can be found in the “Conferences” section at the Strategy Institute’s Web site: www.strategyinstitute.com.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@words-tm.com.