The City of Vancouver announced on Friday (January 19) what looks like a massive expansion of over 500 new locations to its free public #VanWiFi program.
But looks are perhaps a little bit deceiving. In the Fairview neighbourhood at least, more than 64 percent of these “free public” Wi-Fi spots are not located on public property but inside of retail businesses and doctors' offices!
The #VanWiFi program began 15 months ago, on October 2015, in partnership with telecom provider Telus, and began with free Wi-Fi offered in six Vancouver community centres.
The stated goal of the program in 2015 was to bring “free public Wi-Fi to civic locations throughout Vancouver”. But Friday’s massive expansion of the #VanWiFi program, including a large percentage of retail locations (if Fairview is any indication), is a sign of broader coverage goals.
The program likewise has a different telecom partner now—Shaw Communications, which is also a sponsor of the city’s Mobi Bike Share program—a fact that plays a part in Friday’s #VanWiFi expansion.
“Shaw’s expansion of #VanWiFi, covering more than 500 locations in the downtown core and surrounding areas, is a huge win for our residents and businesses, and helps to move Vancouver forward in becoming a truly leading smart city,” the city’s online announcement quotes Mayor Gregor Robertson as saying.
“More than 500 locations” of additional free Wi-Fi sounds incredible but when I checked the City of Vancouver’s #VanWiFi map for new locations of open Internet in my neighbourhood of Fairview, I was in for a shock.
Of the 42 free public #VanWiFi locations that the City of Vancouver lists in Fairview, only 15 of them (36 percent) are on public property and therefore freely available for anyone to access 24 hours a day.
Fully 27 of the locations (more than 64 percent) are in private businesses of some sort, including restaurants, eyeglass stores, and doctors' offices. The Wi-Fi in these businesses may be free but its availability is limited—to customers and to the hours of operation for each business.
Meeting the letter of free Wi-Fi but hardly the spirit
None of these commercial locations meet my definition for a free public, or civic, Wi-Fi spot, namely, an open Internet connection that anyone can connect to and use for free and without obligation.
Can I really go into any of the listed West Broadway businesses, such as Vida Eye Care, Image Care Uniforms, or the Hive Hair Spa and just sit for a few hours and freely surf the web? That seems unlikely. What about the three doctors' offices on the list?
It also seems somewhat disingenuous in other ways to include these business locations in the city’s announcement of “new” #VanWiFi spots.
Are they really new Wi-Fi locations? Did none of these businesses offer in-store Internet access to their customers until the #VanWiFi program stepped up? And, more to the point, is the City of Vancouver actually paying the cost for these businesses?
Shades of Douglas Coupland’s V-Pole
Getting back to the 15 Wi-Fi spots that truly are on public property in the Fairview neighbourhood, I was interested to learn that eight of them (or about 19 percent of all 42 locations) are Shaw-sponsored Mobi Bike Share stations.
According to the City of Vancouver’s announcement on Friday, 49 of all 125 Mobi Bike Share stations currently have free Wi-Fi, which amounts to 8.9 percent of the total of 550 free public #VanWiFi spots across the city.
There are shades here of the briefly fashionable V-Pole concept, dreamed up in 2012 by Canadian author Douglas Coupland and enthusiastically endorsed at the time by Mayor Robertson.
The V-Pole (“V” being for Vancouver) would have been a 21st-century utility pole, bringing energy-efficient LED lighting, Wi-Fi, and cellular connectivity, as well as electric-vehicle charging to Vancouver neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, after a flurry of media attention, interest in the concept died.
Even Coupland’s original promotional web content for the V-Pole is now gone. But the idea of it, apparently, was not entirely forgotten by the City of Vancouver.
Mobi stations are unique for being deeply imbedded in neighbourhoods, far from any other civic locations. By incorporating Wi-Fi, they may at least end up delivering one of the functions promised by the V-Pole.