The City of Vancouver states that its #VanWiFi initiative provides free Internet to 768 public spaces across the city. But this claim badly fails the test of scrutiny so far as Broadway is concerned.
Of 63 free WiFi hotspots along Broadway currently listed on the city’s webpage for the four-year-old #VanWiFi program, fully 37 (or 58.73 percent) did not register in a recent location-by-location test.
Only 26 Broadway addresses were found to be broadcasting the unsecured “#VanWiFi”, or “CoV_Public” signals claimed by the city.
The test was conducted between February 21 and March 2 and involved standing on the sidewalk directly in front of an address and using my 2016 Samsung Galaxy J3 smartphone to both detect and connect to any city WiFi signal.
The test did not include any free WiFi that is serving City of Vancouver public facilities, such as libraries and community centres—none of which are located along Broadway.
And despite finding that only 41.26 percent of the city’s free WiFi along Broadway works, my test arguably puts the ad hoc public WiFi hotspot network in a far better light than it deserves.
City’s free Broadway WiFi is weak and prone to vanish
All of the city’s would-be free WiFi signals that I mapped and annotated along Broadway emanate not from street pole-mounted, city-controlled infrastructure but rather from Shaw Communication equipment located somewhere inside active retail businesses.
What #VanWiFi signals I did find coming from these businesses were rarely very powerful. Not only did I have to stop directly in front of the listed addresses but I usually had to wait 30 seconds or more for the city’s free hotspots to appear in the list of available networks.
For all I know, relying on existing third-party WiFi routers inside of private businesses may have been the quickest and cheapest way for the city to roll out a nominal hotspot network. But it yields terrible WiFi street coverage—at least on Broadway—on a par, I imagine, with shining street lights out of ground-floor retail shop windows.
In my experience during testing, If there are three #VanWiFi host businesses in one block, the signal will drop out between them. If the host businesses are only on one side of the block, there will not be a hint of #VanWiFi on the other side of the block.
It is an understatement to say that the city’s public WiFi signals never extend far enough from their origin to provide full block coverage. The signals often do not even extend to the curb of the sidewalk nearest a host business.
In fact, the week before I began testing the signals address-by-address, I spent a few hours just walking up and down Broadway, checking the listed WiFi networks on my phone. Doing it that way—like someone just walking around—I was only able to connect to #VanWiFi signals twice.
Not only does the city’s approach to providing public WiFi along Broadway result in weak and patchy coverage, it all but guarantees that the coverage is ultimately temporary.
Not surprisingly, #VanWiFi hotspots located inside retail business have a tendency to disappear along with their hosts.
Of the 37 business addresses with missing #VanWiFi hotspots, two are empty and up for lease, five have changed hands, and five have been—or are in the process of—being demolished (like the Memphis Blues Barbeque House at 1465 West Broadway).
And two of the addresses that do still broadcast #VanWiFi signals are ultimately slated (like Memphis Blues) to be demolished to make way for station entrances for the Broadway subway.
Good idea badly done or just a waste of money?
This is the second time I have audited the extent of the free city-provided WiFi along Broadway and it is a far more exhaustive effort than the first test I conducted in January 2018.
But then, I am part of a distinct minority in Vancouver that has a reason to care about the availability of free WiFi. I am homeless and apparently quite impoverished. Some months I cannot even afford to pay for my pay-as-you-go phone service.
I seriously wonder though, whether the majority of Vancouverites, who are not in such dire economic straits, derive any value from the city’s #VanWiFi initiative.
On the one hand, I know that when I have my phone paid up, I do not find myself all that needful of free, mobile WiFi. Doing email, using social media, and surfing the web (without big file downloads) barely dents the 6GB of data that my mobile plan provides.
On the other hand, the #VanWiFi on Broadway is so haphazardly distributed and weakly available that I have to question how many people are even aware that there are free public WiFi signals provided by the city along 27 blocks (or 5.28 kilometres) of the busy avenue.
Hopefully, the bulk of the city’s free, public realm WiFi hotspots—which are located in the downtown peninsula—work well and are well-used by the public. But if Broadway is any indication, I would say that the entire outdoor-facing #VanWiFi network, as implemented, should be scrapped as a bad waste of good money.