Saturday, April 08, 2006

GTA Set to Go Wireless

Canada's mobile-phone giants will be on alert today as Toronto Hydro Corp. details how it plans to turn the country's largest municipality into a massive wireless hotspot, similar to ambitious projects already underway in cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco.

By blanketing Toronto with the same WiFi networking technology already found in many homes and small businesses, Toronto Hydro will go head to head against Bell Mobility, Rogers Wireless and Telus Mobility for a piece of the $8 billion Canadian wireless market.

"I'm dazzled by the possibility," said Rob Hyndman, a Toronto-based technology lawyer and WiFi enthusiast who believes the added competition will be a boon for tourism, local businesses and the city's reputation. "It's an important demonstration of how serious Toronto is about being a desirable destination for business."

Sources said the citywide hotspot could be available in the downtown core as early as September, letting anyone with a properly equipped laptop or handheld device gain high-speed Internet access while sitting on a park bench, parked in a car or even holed up at home.

Mayor David Miller is expected to join Toronto Hydro executives to announce details of the initiative, which will be the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Canada.

So-called municipal WiFi makes broadband access virtually ubiquitous and gives municipalities a way of generating revenue while offering affordable high-speed Internet access to low-income individuals and neighbourhoods.

But Michael Lee, chief strategy officer for Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc., parent of Canada's biggest mobile-phone company, isn't convinced it makes sense for a municipal utility to sell broadband access.

"Running a network to deliver electricity and running a network to deliver Internet protocol to customers are really two different things," Lee said. The cost of building a WiFi network may seem "tantalizingly low," but the ongoing billing, marketing, maintenance and customer support costs are often underestimated.

"Should a utility use taxpayers' dollars to experiment on whether this is a good business opportunity? We'll see how customers respond."

Officials of Bell and Telus would not comment until the details and pricing of Toronto Hydro's plan are revealed. But industry insiders said all three companies are keeping a close eye on the announcement, which could threaten their own WiFi programs and undercut next-generation mobile data services based on high-speed standards EVDO (short for evolution data optimized) and HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access).

Sources said Toronto Hydro is entering the wireless broadband business after deciding to put the WiFi infrastructure in place to support its mandated deployment of smart meters, which require two-way communications to transmit customer data for time-of-day billing.

Brian Sharwood, a telecom analyst with Seaboard Group in Toronto, said it makes sense for a utility to sell high-speed wireless access if it helps recoup the cost of supporting smart meters.

"In a way, that's the excuse to do all of this," he said. "You're going to run it past a lot of people anyway."

Toronto Hydro is expected to install the necessary wireless transmitters and receivers for 18,000 streetlights and poles purchased last year from the city for $60 million. Equip enough of them and you create a net of overlapping wireless networks across the city — what the industry describes as "mesh networking."

A similar approach is being taken in Philadelphia, which is using 4,000 streetlight posts to set up its municipal hotspot. But Philadelphia decided to partner with Internet service provider EarthLink, which is paying the city about $300,000 (U.S.) a year to lease the posts and giving the city 5 per cent of all subscription revenues.

Philadelphia plans to use that money to provide 10,000 computers and training for low-income householders and children. Most citizens will be charged $20 or less to access the service, but EarthLink has promised to offer $9.95 subscriptions to less privileged groups.

It's unclear whether Toronto Hydro will release pricing today. Hyndman, who is also chairman of a not-for-profit organization called Accommodation, Information and Support Inc. that provides housing for people in need, said he's hoping Toronto will emulate Philadelphia's deals and programs for the less fortunate.

"Giving people access to something like that would be very powerful," he said. "This is the kind of thing that could make it affordable."

Hundreds of cities and towns in North America are believed to have embraced municipal WiFi projects to varying degrees. In Ontario, utilities in Hamilton and Sault Ste. Marie are pursuing WiFi strategies to support smart-meter programs. Fredericton and Ottawa are among those that have deployed such networks.

Lee said none of these initiatives has so far given Rogers a reason to worry. Pointing to Fredericton, where the entire downtown is meshed with WiFi, the impact is hardly noticed.

"We don't look at our numbers in Fredericton and say, `Oh my god! This is a precursor of something we should be concerned about.'

"And we watch those numbers pretty closely," he said.


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