Trying to find a free connection in Toronto is difficult — but it’s available in places such as London, Fredericton.
April 19, 2016
The Toronto Star
Customers at a Toronto Tim Hortons use public Wi-Fi. Some smaller cities in Canada have had more success in providing free public Internet access instead of Toronto, which continues to strive for more Wi-Fi at city parks and facilities as well as in community housing. Photo: AARON HARRIS / FOR THE TORONTO STAR.
Compared to other cities around the world, free Wi-Fi can be hard to come by in Toronto.
Pop into a chain coffee shop or fast-food joint and you’ll probably be able to connect. Both Metrolinx and the Toronto Transit Commission are trying to offer up more access, but it’s still limited.
It’s a far cry from the experiment launched in New York earlier this year where free high-speed public Wi-Fi was made available through street kiosks. Using the city’s now outdated pay phone infrastructure, LinkNYC hopes to cover the whole city in the next 10 years, providing affordable access to an increasingly essential service.
But Toronto was already thinking ahead to the need for such a service back in 2006, when Toronto Hydro Telecom offered up the free service for six months in the downtown core.
Wireless hub devices placed on the tops of street light poles sent out powerful signals under the project known as OneZone, a small, 6-square-kilometre area running from Bloor St. to Front St., between Spadina Ave. and Jarvis St.
The service was initially free, but once subscribers had to pay $30 a month for the service, or $10 a day, or $5 an hour, demand dropped off.
Eventually, Toronto city council voted to sell Toronto Hydro Telecom to Cogeco Cable in 2008 for $200 million, and while Cogeco operated the One Zone network for a few years, it eventually pulled the plug.
Officials in the city’s economic development division are now working on a report on what could be done to improve public Wi-Fi access in Toronto, expected out later this year.
The report comes as a result of a push from Councillor Josh Matlow, who has been calling for more Wi-Fi at city parks and facilities as well as in community housing.
“I want to see if there are creative ways to do this,” said Matlow, adding he wants the offering to come at no cost to the city, perhaps through a 5-second ad during log in.
“The more tech-friendly a city becomes, the more incentive there is for startups to set up base here,” he said. “I also want to combat the digital divide.
“If you want to apply for jobs or study for exams, it’s your connection to the world,” he said. “Some people have it, some do not. That’s not right.”
Toronto as a municipality offers limited service at its city hall and civic centres, but lags behind neighbours like Brampton and Mississauga, which offer Wi-Fi at many arenas and community centres.
In fact, some smaller cities in Canada have had more success in providing free public Wi-Fi.
In New Brunswick, Fredericton has been a pioneer, first launching its free zone back in 2003 — four years before the first iPhone was even released.
A Toronto Hydro worker installs a wireless hub device at a street light in 2006 for the OneZone project. The Wi-Fi service was initially free, but once subscribers had to pay $30 a month for the service, or $10 a day, or $5 an hour, demand dropped off. Photo: LUCAS OLENIUK.
Soon after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission deregulated the telecom industry, the city formed its own company called e-Novations ComNet Inc, a not-for-profit, non-dominant carrier that operates in the style of a utility.
As it was getting off the ground, the utility wanted to conduct some demonstration projects, and embarked on a free public Wi-Fi idea.
“Our project started before people had heard of smartphones, but Wi-Fi was becoming standard in laptops,” said Mike Richard, vice-president of operations for Go Fred, an e-Novations division, which sells Internet service to government, institutions and small businesses, competing with the country’s largest telecoms.
The Fred eZone covers much of the downtown, including malls, parks, arenas, convention centres and the airport. The zone was initially funded with a $350,000 investment for capital costs from the city.
The operating costs of the service, which draws about 1,500 users a day, are essentially donated from the utility company’s revenues, though Richard wouldn’t disclose the amount.
It has adapted and made changes, such as providing a special access ID for vendors at the farmer’s market, where they can use hand-held terminals, using the wireless connection, to accept credit card or debit card payments.
Richard credits Fredericton’s size, a city of about 55,000, for the success of the public Wi-Fi program.
“We’re small enough to be just the right size to pull this off,” he said. “We have a bias to say yes, whether it’s staff or council. We have to punch above our weight.”
Other communities have also brought in free public Wi-Fi including London, Ont., where the initiative has been spearheaded by the Downtown London business improvement association.
Known as the London Area Wireless Network (LAWN), it provides free outdoors Wi-Fi in the core, though it has added indoor Wi-Fi at Citi Plaza, a mixed use office and retail space, and Covent Garden Market.
Kathy McLaughlin, manager of MainStreet programs, a partner organization of the BIA, said the idea of offering public Wi-Fi came from a desire to offering more services that customers headed downtown would want.
“We are in the business of providing amenities. Traditionally, it’s flowers, benches and clear sidewalks,” she said. “It stretched our thinking.”
What started as a pilot project for $13,000 was eventually expanded in three phases for a total budget of about $69,000 over three years. Now, the BIA covers the annual $18,000 bill for Internet service, provided by Start Communications, a London-based provider.
“Free Wi-Fi is an expectation now, it’s not just an option,” said McLaughlin, who estimated the service averaged almost 9,000 unique users a month last year, though it spikes in warmer weather.
“It builds goodwill for the downtown brand,” she said, adding people will sometimes gather at their third place — a downtown mezzanine — instead of just the home or office.
The service also draws individuals who don’t have access to data plans such as students or the unemployed, as well as transit users checking on schedules or office workers who aren’t allowed to use to company Internet for personal use.
“There is a social good, but it’s not unlimited,” she said, adding usage is capped at 20 gigabytes a month.
McLaughlin compared providing free Wi-Fi to offering water, a basic need.
“We’re not going to tell you how to use it, but we know they need it,” she said. “For us, it’s the new utility.”
Hotspots for hotspots
San Francisco, California
Thanks to a whopping $608,000 (U.S.) cheque from Google, residents in San Francisco now have access to Wi-Fi in playgrounds, recreation centres and parks — all part of the company’s efforts to promote Internet access.
The government-run program iTaiwan offers free public Wi-Fi for citizens across the island with thousands of hotspots, covering public buildings, tourist attractions and transport hubs. Visitors can sign up, in advance, for 30 days of access.
The land of casinos offers free Wi-Fi hotspots, some that operate from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., while others run around the clock. Users have up to 45 minutes, and then the service will be disconnected. If a connection is available, then the user can reconnect.
Want to download or upload a video quickly? Go to Helsinki, where open public Wi-Fi is faster than some home systems. When the city government began installing Wi-Fi in buildings, it decided at the same time to install open networks for public use. Talk about forward thinking.
Seoul, South Korea
The country already describes itself as the most wired city, but Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon is vowing to ensure every public space will have free Wi-Fi by 2017, including subways and buses. The city will spend $373.9 million (U.S.) over next five years as part of effort dubbed “diginomics” — bringing together digital and economics.
This article, along with the full report, can be found in its original form at: https://www.thestar.com/business/tech_news/2016/04/17/what-became-of-torontos-push-for-free-public-wi-fi.html