Municipal Wi-Fi

The International Conference on Mobile Business focused on municipal wireless, which made me wonder if governments should be in the Wi-Fi businessI think free, city-run wireless networks are a great idea. I usually carry a laptop when traveling, and it’s what I use for e-mail on the road. So I’m forever logging into hotspots for a quick e-mail fix, and too often I pay for 24-hour access, use the thing for 40 minutes and move on, only to pay for another hotspot later in the day.

I tried the Fred E-Zone when I was in Fredericton last summer, and it worked beautifully – smoother than many commercial hotspots, and absolutely free.

So when I see that Saskatchewan is launching free Internet access in four cities, free to all, it makes me want to head straight out to Tommy Douglas-land.

And yet…

I recently attended a session at the International Conference on Mobile Business in Toronto that focused on municipal wireless networks. Some of what I heard there made me wonder if governments really should be in the Wi-Fi business.

One of the panelists was Dr. Barbara Crow, a York University professor, who talked about a free network called Ile sans fil in Montreal. This isn’t a municipally run service; it’s operated by a non-profit community group. The idea is the same, though – there are hotspots scattered throughout the city, many of them in coffee shops, and access is free.

In studying the service, Crow found that most of the people using it were young white males with laptops using coffee shops as makeshift offices.

In short, they’re guys like me (well, stretching the “young” part a little).

That raises a question. Yes, hotspots are really handy, and yes, it’s nice not to have to pay nine or ten bucks to get online for a quick e-mail check. If somebody wants to provide this kind of service free, more power to them. But should government provide a free service like this to people who can afford to pay for it?

Internet access is becoming essential. School-age children who don’t have it at home are at a disadvantage. Yes, they can get access at school and probably at libraries and community centres, but that’s not a lot of help at nine p.m. with homework to do, especially in a neighbourhood where walking to the local library after dark just isn’t an option for kids.

I know people with school-age children for whom just paying the utility bills can be a challenge. As handy as free WiFi is for me when I can get it, I have to admit they need access from home more than I need to be able to get a free e-mail fix from a park bench.

Of course, there’s more than one reason for providing free wireless access. For many cities, it’s a question not of helping the disadvantaged but of making the city more attractive to businesses, conventions or tourists.

That goal might be achieved by offering widespread coverage at fairly low cost rather than free – and with the added benefit that you pay once and have access anywhere in the coverage area for a specified period. Maybe cities could even use the revenue from a modest fee for mobile access to offer free fixed-wireless service to those who need it most. Just a thought. In the meantime, I admit, I’ll take free wireless whenever I can get it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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