Homeless in Vancouver: Revisiting free city Wi-Fi along Fairview’s West Broadway—block by block

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      Late Sunday afternoon (January 21) the McDonald’s in the 1400 block of West Broadway was flooded by water backing up from both washrooms, with the result that the restaurant closed seven-and-a-half hours early, at 4:30 p.m.

      If I couldn’t sit and write, I thought, it was a nice afternoon—I could at least do some neighbourhood research.

      I decided to stroll east up West Broadway to Cambie Street and back again to test how accessible the City of Vancouver’s free #VanWiFi network signals were, coming as they mostly did from within private businesses.

      Two days earlier I had written critically of the fact that over 64 percent of the city’s new free Wi-Fi coverage in the Fairview neighbourhood was located inside private businesses along a few blocks of West Broadway. I questioned how freely available this Wi-Fi was and whether it would be available after the stores hosting it were closed for the day.

      What I found when I tested the actual availability and strength of the #VanWiFi network along 10 blocks of West Broadway, between Granville and Cambie streets, was honestly much better than I expected—there were blocks worth of strong Wi-Fi coverage, quite accessible from the sidewalk.

      At the same time, the coverage was patchy. Signal availability and strength varied by block; it varied by where I was standing in a given block and—quite significantly—it depended whether I was standing on the south or north side of the street (with the former being much better than the latter).

      Walking the blocks and not just talking the talk

      Starting in the 1400 block, on the south side of West Broadway and traveling east, my Samsung XCover 4 phone did not detect the #VanWiFi network for six blocks.

      It wasn’t until the west end of the 900 block—between the Red Ginger restaurant and the Expedia Cruise Ship Centre—both listed #VanWiFi locations—that I saw the network in my phone’s Wi-Fi Connections list. The city network’s signal strength dropped off on the east end of the 900 block and picked up toward the middle of the 800 block—near another #VanWiFi location: the Fairview Pub.

      From the middle of the 800 block, the #VanWiFi signal strength was generally strong and available all the way east through the 500 block, with a few small lapses and weak patches. The signal strength notably weakened in the 600 block, right in front of another listed #VanWiFi location: the Rogue Kitchen and Wetbar—perhaps due to the location of the router inside the building.

      The #VanWiFi signal disappeared altogether when I crossed Cambie Street from the 500 block into the 400 block—this despite the fact that most of the south side of the 400 block consists of city-owned and/or operated buildings.

      After I crossed to the north side of West Broadway and began the trip back to Hemlock Street, connecting to the #VanWiFi network became considerably more difficult.

      There was a strong signal to begin with, in most of the north side of the 500 block, something to be expected, given the presence of two #VanWiFi locations: a City of Vancouver office and the Freshii restaurant, which, also had its own “Freshlii” Wi-Fi signal.

      The #VanWiFi signal completely disappeared on the north side of the 600 and 700 blocks and did not return until the middle of the 800 block, across from the Fairview Pub. The signal died and then picked up again in the 900 block, in front of the Red Ginger restaurant. The notable fact here was that the restaurant was closed but its #VanWiFi signal was still broadcasting.

      The #VanWiFi signal disappeared and did not reappear once I had crossed Oak Street from the 900 block to the 1000 block.

      My little walkabout shows the degree to which the #VanWiFi network is a useful option on the better part of five blocks of West Broadway. According to my experience, a person should be able to use the city’s free public network to get on the Internet anywhere between Oak and Cambie Street—on the south side of the street, at least. And it looks as though the signal is independent of the operating hours of the host businesses.

      Some of the drawbacks of relying on business locations for coverage were also made clear.

      Where there are no participating businesses, there is no signal, as is the case with the north sides of the 600 and 700 blocks. And where there is a signal, its strength on the street can likely be impaired by the location of broadcasting equipment inside a building. Also, network coverage, in this arrangement, can be dramatically affected by changing business fortunes.

      The closure this month of one of the #VanWiFi locations in the 500 block of West Broadway—the Freedom Mobile storefront—has had no effect on signal strength only because there are six remaining #VanWiFi locations in that block. But a closure of one of the four businesses hosting #VanWiFi routers on the south side of the 700 block would probably leave a discernible hole in signal availability in that already poorly covered block.

      What I found on Sunday was as good as I think should be expected, given the ad hoc nature of the approach being taken by the City of Vancouver and Shaw Communications to providing free, public Wi-Fi coverage to some of the Fairview neighbourhood.

      A somewhat ironic thing I found was that the #VanWiFi signal provided by Shaw Communications was beat hands down, for both coverage and signal strength, by Shaw’s own street Wi-Fi network, called Shaw Passpoint, which evenly blanketed every metre of the 10 blocks of West Broadway that I checked. Every Shaw customer has “free” access to this Wi-Fi signal, as do Freedom Mobile customers—which I number among.

      It seems a shame that the city could not just simply make a deal with Shaw to extend Shaw Passpoint Wi-Fi to all Vancouverites, rather than having Shaw build the #VanWiFi coverage on West Broadway that could only be redundant, where it wasn’t patchy.

      If Vancouver won’t lead with smart poles we may yet follow

      Adding free Wi-Fi to neighbourhood Mobi bike sharing stations is as close as Vancouver is coming to V-Pole functionality.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Against trying to place separate routers in as many businesses in a block as possible to provide Wi-Fi on the sidewalks, I lean toward the seemingly more efficient method of street-based Wi-Fi nodes, such as the so-called V-Poles (“smart” LED light poles equipped with wireless connectivity), as championed by Vancouver author Douglas Coupland. I believe that one such smart pole per block would provide solid street-level Wi-Fi coverage, with potentially less equipment, lower power output, and none of the other drawbacks of routers inside private businesses.

      But I have no real world examples to back up my assertion. For five years now, the supposed benefits of smart utility poles have been more rhetoric than reality. Only in the last two years have any number of municipalities committed to actually installing them. And these have mostly been in developing countries, such as India, where cities are clearly hoping to use smart poles to vault over their lack of legacy wireless infrastructure straight into 21st-century modernity.

      Finally, though, one developed country that Canada seems to pay close attention to has just gone for smart poles in a big way.

      As of the summer of 2017, a number of municipalities in Australia, including Sydney, Adelaide, the Gold Coast, and Wollongong have committed to installing over 300 smart poles, to deliver everything from LED street and traffic lighting, wireless connectivity, environmental monitoring, parking administration, and, ultimately, electric-vehicle charging.

      If the Australian experience with smart poles is positive, Canada will probably follow suit—as we have already followed the example of Australia in adopting the dollar coin and polymer banknotes.