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cityscape

Public Works: Free Wi-Fi For All?

Free municipal wireless networks have been implemented in various places with mixed results. Is Toronto ready to give it a try?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Last month, Santa Clara California became the first US city to offer free outdoor Wi-Fi access to all residents.

The service isn’t encrypted, and the speed is less than that of a 3G phone, so it’s not suited to doing your banking or streaming HD movies. But it beats spending the day at Starbucks with a laptop and a cold latte.

Wireless is now as ubiquitous, and almost as necessary, as basic utilities like water or electricity. Providing universal access across cities, either through government funding or through some form of public-private partnership, may be an idea whose time has come.

Toronto has toyed with the idea of free Wi-Fi in the past. In 2006, Toronto Hydro Wireless launched the One Zone network, which provided service in the downtown area. There was a free period, but it only lasted six months. Although Hydro claimed success, the idea never really caught on. In 2008 the system was sold to Cogeco, which still operates it as a subscription service.

In 2009, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) became an unlikely champion of free-to-users web access. His idea was based loosely on San Fransico’s 2008 Free the Net program, during which cloud-computing firm Meraki Networks provided Wi-Fi throughout the city, with a focus on low-income areas. But Minnan-Wong’s proposal never gained traction, and Meraki’s California experiment in public internet shut down quietly several years ago.

Besides San Francisco, other efforts elsewhere have been abandoned. Last year, Seattle gave up on municipal Wi-Fi after nine years of commissions, reviews, and testing.

In Philadelphia, a 2004 plan to blanket the city with Wi-Fi collapsed when, in 2008, Earthlink pulled out and sold the partially built-out network to the city. Under financial pressure and meeting intense resistance from powerful cable and wireless companies, the Wireless Philadelphia initiative is apparently in limbo. Its website is now offline, with no forwarding address.

In spite of this history of early enthusiasm followed by high-profile failure, things may be looking up for municipal Wi-Fi networks. Wireless technology is more mature than it was in the mid-aughts, and cities are adopting it internally, for business purposes, which might make it easier to roll it out to citizens.

It may be that the notion is unlikely to find active support under Mayor Rob Ford’s gravy-obsessed administration, but with municipal elections a bare year and a half away, it remains an idea worth exploring.

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