Today Sat Sun
It is forecast to be Clear at 11:00 PM EDT on July 25, 2014
It is forecast to be Thunderstorm at 11:00 PM EDT on July 26, 2014
It is forecast to be Chance of a Thunderstorm at 11:00 PM EDT on July 27, 2014
Chance of a Thunderstorm



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.


  • HotDang

    Unencrypted is a bad idea. I can’t imagine why they would make that choice.

    • Testu

      What would be the point of encrypting a publicly accessible network?

      You’d have to distribute the key freely in order for people to use it, and at that point it’s no different than it being unencrypted as far as being able to snoop on what’s going over the network.

  • Squint

    I think it’s a good idea. Not so much for myself, but for tourists and people that can’t afford internet. I travelled to London UK and bought a week pass to use some hotspots around town to help me find places and stay in touch with friends. It wasn’t the best in quality or always available, but if there was some sort of designated area marker that shows “get signal here” would be great. So if Toronto gets it they do it right and it works for the most part.

  • Angry Admin

    1) Internet is a luxury, you can live without it.
    2) If you can’t afford internet, a) you don’t need the fastest speeds, get the cheapest plan from rogers/bell/teksavvy b) GO TO THE LIBRARY and use it there.
    3) no such thing as free wifi, someone will have to pay for it and it will be abused by people downloading hd movies.

    • Steveinto

      Internet is a luxury? Like a phone is luxury? I would think an informed society makes a better society and contributes greatly to the health of its people and an overall better place to live.

      Internet is an integral part of our communication process, it is the 21st century you know, not 1950′s.
      The only cost associated with WIFI is the distribution of it, which is very low . It costs the ISP nothing to provide speeds and band width that is all arbitrary.

      • Eric S. Smith

        “It costs the ISP nothing to provide speeds and band width that is all arbitrary.”

        I think you’ll find that networks don’t build and maintain themselves, and that upstream providers tend to charge money for access.

    • Testu

      Have you ever used one of these public wi-fi setups? They’re heavily speed limited and tend to use fairly aggressive QOS and filtering to prioritize http traffic. It would take weeks to download an HD movie off of something like the OneZone network.

      Also, have you tried living without internet access? It’s almost impossible now, especially if you are poor/infirm and have limited time/resources to be able to access government services, etc.

      And what about visitors to the city? If you don’t have a working data plan in a foreign city how easy is it to find locations and services now? Who even sells physical maps and guides any more.

  • Geoff DeSouza

    Just doesn’t seem like it makes much sense. People are increasingly using their phone plans to access the internet if need be. Not to mention that it’s fine for a warm-weather city, but there’s not much point to providing outdoor access where it’s, what the word… REALLY FREAKING COLD for a few months out of the year.

    I could get behind offering it in the PATH, but that’s already being rolled out (I know Brookfield place has free WiFi). Landlords will provide it if they think the demand is there and it will attract shoppers. I don’t think there’s any reason to move off that model.

    • teoreticom

      Why you think the WiFi is only for you to check your facebook updates ? It can be used for important things such as crunching data, driverless cars, and so on.

  • Jonathan Dursi

    Very few cities have managed to make this work; but one Canadian city that has, Fredericton, has had theirs chugging along quite nicely since 2004. Covers the downtown pretty well.

  • scottld

    Google is testing free wi fi in a few US locations including New York (Chelsea area) so you know it is a big deal. I believe that some access to the internet should be free and I hope that this will help break the shackles of Rogers et all.