Public Wi-Fi First Wave: Big Plans, Few Successes
In about 2004, the technology press was abuzz with stories of municipal public Wi-Fi. In the United States, projects were initiated in more than 200 municipalities, including major cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

By 2008, most of these projects had been significantly scaled back or abandoned entirely. In Boston, visions of city-wide coverage were scaled back to just key downtown areas. Projects in Philadelphia and San Francisco were abandoned entirely. Others, like Chicago, never got off the ground, as explained in this 2007 press release:

“. . . the unexpected high cost of building a Wi-Fi network, combined with increased competition from other service providers, meant that these networks are unlikely to succeed without extraordinary financial support from the local government. Even with such support …there appears to be far less demand …than originally projected.”

Within Canada, Toronto Hydro proposed in 2004 to provide city-wide wireless coverage. By 2006, this had been scaled back to a downtown core service called OneZone – which is still offered (with limited take-up) by Cogeco (who bought Toronto Hydro Telecom in 2008).

Notwithstanding the failure of many larger projects, there were some successes, especially in smaller cities. Within Canada, the City of Fredericton’s Fred-eZone provides free public Wi-Fi access in most of the downtown business area. Building on the success of their community fibre network, Fred-eZone was built and operated by E-novations, a city-owned company staffed entirely by city employees and using city-owned infrastructure (light poles, water towers, etc.). The resulting network was the first of its kind in Canada and attracted considerable media attention and contributed to the City’s economic development strategy.

Public Wi-Fi Makes a Comeback: New Models
In retrospect, 2005 may have been too soon for major public Wi-Fi investments. However, with Wi-Fi cards now standard in computers, tablets and smart phones, Wi-Fi hotspots are increasingly available at coffee shops, restaurants, book stores, airports, hotels, etc. Municipalities have likewise provided Wi-Fi access in libraries, recreation facilities and other public buildings. Since municipalities increasingly need Wi-Fi for their own staff in these buildings, extending access to the public imposes limited additional costs.

But other models have also emerged for providing public Wi-Fi in western Canada. Unlike other telecom carriers, Shaw Communications has entered into partnerships with a growing number of municipalities – Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and many smaller municipalities, primarily in Alberta and British Columbia, but extending as far as northwestern Ontario (e.g. Sault Ste. Marie). Under such agreements, Shaw installs, at its cost, Wi-Fi access points in municipal facilities and using municipal infrastructure (street light poles, etc.). Shaw owns and operates the resulting network, which it makes available to Shaw Go Wi-Fi subscribers. Many agreements require Shaw to provide free public access in municipal facilities and defined public spaces. Such free access may be limited in some ways (e.g. connect time, data limits), with higher levels of service being available by becoming a Shaw Go Wi-Fi subscriber.

Using the 2013 City of Edmonton agreement as an example, the City estimated that expanding its own network would cost up to $15 million. Once the Shaw network is in place, Edmonton will decommission its public Wi-Fi access in locations served by Shaw – although the City wireless infrastructure will remain in place for use by City staff.

To a limited extent, other carriers have followed a similar model. For instance, the City of Winnipeg has agreements with both Shaw and Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS). Ice Wireless has entered into an agreement with the City of Ottawa to provide free public Wi-Fi in 25 municipal facilities. Ice Wireless will be allowed to set up 75 screens in high-traffic areas of the buildings and sell advertising. Ice Wireless plans to extend this advertising-based business model to other cities. Bell is providing free public Wi-Fi in an area along Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal, through an agreement with the local business association.

Carriers do not necessarily require municipal agreements to provide Wi-Fi access – although they may be less likely to provide public access without such agreements. For instance, Shaw subscribers can receive Go Wi-Fi access in locations where Shaw has negotiated agreements with facility owners (e.g. shopping malls) to install access points.

In addition to carrier-based initiatives, many Canadian municipalities are getting back into the public Wi-Fi game either on their own, in public-private partnerships or in partnership with not-for-profits or downtown business associations. The following provides a by no means exhaustive list of current initiatives:

  • London’s LAWN (London Area Wireless Network) provides free Wi-Fi in public spaces in downtown London, through a collaborative venture between Downtown London (funded by downtown businesses) and the City.
  • Moncton partnered with Cisco and HP to install Wi-Fi Moncton in the city core, on city buses and the Magnetic Hill area.
  • In Montreal, more than 500 Wi-Fi access points have been implemented in cafes, restaurants, hospitals, colleges, etc. through a not-for-profit organization (Ile-sans-Fil) for a minimal cost for location owners. (The Wifidog user authentication software, developed by Ile-sans-Fil, is also used by ZAP in Quebec, as well as wireless communities in New York, Paris, Berlin, Brest, Marseille, Vancouver and Toronto.)
  • In Quebec City, another not-for-profit, ZAP Quebec (Zone d’Acces Public) has installed more than 400 hotspots covering in cafes, restaurants and public building. As a result, Quebec has Wi-Fi coverage for over 60 percent of its territory and was named Canada’s best connected city in 2011.
  • With considerably less success, Wireless Toronto has attempted to play a similar role helping businesses create wireless hotspots in downtown Toronto.
  • The Valley Community Fibre Network Authority, a consortium of six municipalities and two education institutions, is providing free Wi-Fi access in the Annapolis Valley town of Berwick.
  • Free.Baffin set up a single access point, providing free Wi-Fi access in Iqaluit at a cost of $5,500 and hopes that the service can be supported through advertising on its portal page.
  • Langley (British Columbia) is deploying free wireless hotspots around city facilities at a cost claimed to be less than $200 per access point – and has posted an “Implementing Low-Cost Public Wi-Fi” guide for those interested in replicating their approach.
  • In 2005, Atria Networks installed Wi-Fi access points in and around Waterloo Region. However, when Rogers bought Atria in 2010, it cancelled the Wi-Fi initiative, leaving the municipalities to pick up the pieces. In response, Stratford created Rhyzome Networks, a wholly-owned communications facility serving Stratford and six neighbouring communities. Rhyzome now provides both fibre optic and Wi-Fi services and contributed to Stratford being voted a top seven Intelligent Community in 2011 and 2012.

After a succession of high-profile early failures, especially in the United States, public Wi-Fi has re-emerged as an economic necessity for a modern municipality. Canadian municipalities have experimented with a number of models to meet this need. It is to be expected that this marketplace will continue to evolve in the coming years – and that municipalities will continue to play a variety of roles.

Roy Wiseman
Roy Wiseman is currently Executive Director and was a founding member of MISA/ASIM Canada. He is a Board Member and Past President of the Institute for Citizen Centred Service, Past President of MISA Ontario, former municipal Co-Chair of the Service Mapping Subcommittee and Project Director for the Municipal Reference Model (MRMv2) project.