Idea of citywide Wi-Fi network finds some support in Vancouver
Armed with her black computer bag, Caitlin Leepart makes her daily journey to find Wi-Fi in Vancouver. Leepart is studying makeup artistry at the New Image College of Fine Arts. She says that as a student, she can’t afford the expense of having an Internet connection. So, in order to log on, she treks back and forth between coffee shops for a few hours of Internet access.
“It’s annoying and it’s really frustrating,” Leepart told the Georgia Straight as she walked home through the rain. “You’ve got to buy coffee that you don’t really want, just to have two hours of Internet.” Leepart said that, although she understands the City of Vancouver has other issues to deal with, it would be nice to have free wireless Internet hot spots she could count on.
“I guess that’s the way coffee shops are making their extra money,” Leepart said. “I have heard so many people complain about it. If they could just put in a central Wi-Fi, it would be great. I mean, we live here, we support the city, so why not?”
City hall first began looking into the idea of bringing free wireless to parts of Vancouver in 2005. The goal was to have a municipal Wi-Fi network up and running by 2010, in time for the Winter Olympics.
The plan involved finding a partner from the private sector to operate and maintain the wireless network. According to a 2007 city staff report, to “blanket” Vancouver, 2,000 antennas would need to be installed on light standards at an estimated cost of $10 million. “Council decided to go that route in 2007,” Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer told the Straight by phone. “It issued a request for expressions of interest, and it got none. So the final report to council was just that—that there is nobody interested in doing this.”
While Vancouver looked in vain for a partner, Wi-Fi pilot projects were appearing in cities across North America. Some turned out to be failures, but some cities did have success.
In Seattle, a Wi-Fi network was established in 2005 to provide free Internet access to small businesses and university students. In 2008, over 20,000 unique users logged on to the system that now covers business districts, City Hall, and parks.
Meanwhile, in Fredericton, more than 600 unique users log on each day to the city’s free Wi-Fi network, called Fred-eZone.
Michael Richard is the senior project manager for information technology with the City of Fredericton. He said the idea of taking on a Wi-Fi project was originally pitched to council by his department as “intellectual infrastructure” akin to traditional infrastructure such as roads and sewers.
“It’s infrastructure that the city provides in the form of an amenity,” Richard told the Straight by phone. “You come to the city of Fredericton, we expect that people should be able to access the Internet at places that you would reasonably be able to access it.”
Richard said the city has been successful in the endeavour, allowing people to access Wi-Fi in malls, libraries, and the airport. But he said free public Wi-Fi does come at a cost.
“We are government and even though you are offering it for free, citizens have a certain expectation of that type of infrastructure—that it is always available, high-quality,” Richard said. “So, our biggest job has been to set the expectation as low as we can. This is an amenity, and if it works and you get on it, great.”
According to the Vancouver Economic Development Commission, an agency of the city, getting a free Wi-Fi network up and running should be a top priority.
“What we are doing right now is we are working with a task force in the industry to see how we can develop a strategy to improve service throughout the downtown and throughout the city,” John Tylee, director of policy and communications for the VEDC, told the Straight by phone.
Tylee insists that there is the potential for a profitable Wi-Fi network in Vancouver. He believes the city and private companies need to branch out and explore new business models in order to make that happen.
“Wireless is a very important part of any city’s infrastructure. It is important for business; it is important to keep our city competitive with other cities, particularly in Asia, who are much more advanced in that area than we are; and it is also an important part in the quality of life,” Tylee said.
In Reimer’s view, “It is an interesting discussion because there is a very clear correlation between economic development and access to the online world. There is already so much coverage in the city. It is not universal, but there is enough of it that there is not a business model there.”
However, she said issues such as social housing and becoming the world’s greenest city take precedence on council’s agenda. According to her, free public Wi-Fi is not on the city’s radar anymore. “The city has a pipeline of policy it can do, and that pipeline is pretty full right now,” Reimer said.