April 22, 2015
Whither our Wi-Fi?
While cities as small as Stratford, Ont. and as large as New York push forward on municipal Wi-Fi initiatives, plans for anything similar in Toronto continue to move at dial-up speed.
“When I brought the issue to City Hall, I found myself hitting a huge brick wall,” said Coun. Josh Matlow, the architect of a failed pitch to add Wi-Fi to municipal parks and squares in 2013.
After having his proposal “punted” from committee to committee, Matlow had to contend with the “anti-Wi-Fi lobby,” a group of residents concerned about the potential health effects of wireless Internet.
The group’s “fear-based arguments” convinced his fellow councillors to kibosh the idea, Matlow said.
Since then, cities across North America have rolled out free public Wi-Fi programs. Some have even laid their own fiber optic Internet cable, said Josh Tabish with Open Media.
In New York, old payphones have been turned into Wi-Fi hotspots and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to blanket the Big Apple in wireless Internet by 2025.
While he acknowledged that there have been gains – notably adding Wi-Fi to downtown subway stations – Matlow says Toronto can’t afford any more Wi-Fi lag.
“It’s an equity issue,” he said. “While many of us take for granted that we have Wi-Fi in our homes … there are many in the city who don’t have the same access. There are children in the city who don’t have the same access.”
According to Statistics Canada, only a quarter of Canada’s poorest households have wireless Internet access.
Tabish called free municipal Wi-Fi a “no brainer,” and said it can serve as a revenue tool for cities.
At the very least, Matlow believes adding Wi-Fi to downtown Toronto could be done on a cost recovery basis by partnering with advertisers or telecom companies.
“Whether we like it or not, we’re in a tech-centric world,” he said. “And the cities that are tech-centric are the ones that are successful.”
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