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Wireless blitz in Saskatchewan

Cisco, SaskTel team up in major community initiative


September 1, 2007  


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At a youth summit organized by the Saskatchewan provincial government in February, a group of delegates attending a breakout session called Progressive Cities made it clear that increasing accessibility to technological innovation was paramount.

Premier Lorne Calvert obviously listened for just three weeks later he unveiled plans for Saskatchewan! Connected, an ambitious initiative that would offer free basic Internet service in the downtown business districts of Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw through a Wi-Fi network.

The system, which was designed and deployed by SaskTel using wireless equipment from Cisco Systems Canada Co., officially went live in late July when residents and visitors to Saskatoon’s Downtown and Broadway business districts were able to gain Internet access via the wireless Wi-Fi-based network operated by the government Information Technology Office.

It is Canada’s largest outdoor wireless network and the first of its kind to be supported on a provincial or state level in North America.

According to a government press release, any existing desktop or laptop computer can be configured with a Wi-Fi adaptor and connected quickly to the free service.

“(This) is one of the many terrific ideas coming out of this year’s Youth Summit,” said Frank Quennell, Minister Responsible for Information Technology in the province. “Free wireless Internet access was clearly identified as one of the tangible initiatives that would ensure our communities remain invigorating places where young people want to work, live and build strong futures.”

It helps that Saskatchewan has a province-wide fiber optic network, the result of CommunityNet and CommunityNetII, two initiatives that currently provides every education institution, health care facility library and government office in 366 communities with high-speed Internet.

At last count, 86% of the province’s population has access to high-speed service through the CommunityNet public broadband network and SaskTel’s commercial network services.

Richard Murray, executive director, policy and planning with Saskatchewan’s Information Technology Office (ITO), said the Wi-Fi initiative was viewed as the next logical step.

“We own a telco and we have a province-wide fiber optic network,” he said. “When we did our network design, obviously a backhaul was not a problem. We were able to spread this across three communities many hundreds of kilometers apart from each other and design the network in such a way that we were able to pull everything back to a data centre in Regina.

“This is a logical progression of events. As an example, without the fiber we may have been able to do Regina, but certainly not Prince Albert.”

In terms of the physical installation, the government approached Cisco shortly after the conference and work began soon after. A team was then assembled that included Murray, who spearheaded it from a project management perspective, Kevin Lahey, wireless product specialist with Cisco in Toronto and Rick Kraus, an account manager with the firm based in Regina.

“I have been impressed with the work the government has done to frame all this and move it forward and also SaskTel’s support,” said Kraus. “For example, when the government first went to SaskTel, the initial work was almost completed within six weeks.”

A key piece of equipment is the Cisco Aironet 1500 Series, an outdoor wireless mesh platform that uses an intelligent wireless routing algorithm to connect access points together. Its design also allows it to be deployed on rooftops, light posts and power poles and withstand weather conditions ranging from +55C to -40C.

The Saskatchewan! Connected initiative involves 450 access points.

Murray, meanwhile, says his ultimate goal is to expand the network out to more municipalities across the province and also enlarge the coverage zone in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw.

The capital cost of installing the network in the four centres was $1.3 million. Annual operating costs are expected to total $339,000.

Moving forward, Lahey says a number of municipalities across the country have expressed an interest in what he calls “community wireless.”

While much of it currently leans towards giving core municipal departments such as police, fire and EMS access to a wireless Wi-Fi, 3G or EDGE (Enhanced Data GSM Environment) network, there are “many different ways to provide a wireless blanket throughout a municipality, he adds.


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