The idea: Free, citywide wireless internet in public areas. The UN has declared internet access to be a basic human right, akin to water or electricity; if that’s the case, perhaps the service should be managed in a similar fashion, as part of the city’s infrastructure.
Who’s doing it: Fredericton, New Brunswick—a city driven by government workers, universities, and a vibrant start-up scene—manages its own internet through the firm e-Novations. Formed in 2000, with a $65,000 loan from the city, the company boasts more than 100 kilometres of fibre-optic network.
The free-WiFi area—dubbed the Fred-eZone—covers nearly the entire downtown, and high-speed internet is steeply discounted for businesses. E-Novations, which paid back its starting capital within six months, sustains the free public WiFi and low business rates by buying its bandwidth in bulk from telecommunication firms, the largest of which is Rogers. Its aim is not profit—and e-Novations does not manage residential internet—but to make the city more attractive for investors and visitors. Any money earned is pumped back into improving the internet infrastructure.
The discounted commercial internet, up to 75 per cent off the going rate, is a new concept announced this past August. (Pricing details are expected to be announced by the end of fall.) Brad Woodside, Frederiction’s mayor since 1986, said the prices will be among the most attractive in the country.
“It keeps young people here,” he says. “That creates jobs, and that’s really what this is all about.”
Despite New Brunswick’s relatively weak economy — it has the highest unemployment rate in the country according to latest data released in August—Fredericton has consistently outperformed the province in nearly all economic indicators.
The city has also developed a reputation as a regional hub for start-ups and research, and has been ranked by various publications as one of Canada’s best places in which to live.
While there are many factors to a successful city, Woodside believes Fredericton’s internet infrastructure has played an important part.
“It enables people, particularly tourists visiting our city, to stay connected,” he says. “It also enables people who live here to be outside and, just sitting at a park bench, have access to high-speed internet.”
Atlantic Canada’s internet rates are historically higher than those found in the rest of the country. With high-speed internet being an important service for many businesses, the region has always had a handicap in terms of attracting investment, Woodside observes. With the new discounted internet for businesses, the mayor hopes to “level the playing field” and make it even more enticing for businesses to set up shop in Fredericton.
“It all has to do with information technology and connectivity,” Woodside says. “Connectivity is as important as the air you breathe and the water that you drink.”
How it would work here: It is uncertain how a Frederiction-style plan could be implemented in Toronto, but it would likely involve some sort of public- and private-sector partnership, according to Ward 22 Councillor Josh Matlow.
In a letter to the city’s economic development committee issued last August, Matlow called for a report on the feasibility of WiFi in the city’s parks, civic squares, privately owned public spaces, and business areas.
“It’s part of what makes a tech-friendly city,” he says. “It allows young people who want to work together to find creative spaces in the city to create start-ups, for example.”
Under Matlow’s proposal, the WiFi would be provided free by a third party—or a number of third parties—who would get the chance to promote themselves in exchange. For instance, the homepage users are directed to after they log on—common for public WiFi services—can feature advertisements from the internet providers.
Echoing Woodside’s sentiments, Matlow adds that such a network not only attracts investors, but also tourists, who otherwise have to suffer expensive data-roaming fees.
Public-private partnerships for free WiFi are already being pursued in a number of cities, including San Francisco, where 31 parks will offer free WiFi on a two-year trial basis starting 2014. (The $600,000 project was funded by Google with no strings attached.) Matlow says he is currently studying the systems of different cities to determine the one most suitable for Toronto. He added that the Fredericton system—a city-linked firm offering free public WiFi and slashing commercial internet prices—is appealing, but it is too early narrow his choices.
For now, Matlow is calling for a free WiFi pilot program in Nathan Phillips Square by the end of next year. While the City attempted a similar initiative with Toronto Hydro back in 2006, it ultimately failed, due to changes within the organization.
“It very quickly became a pay-per-use service, which defeated the whole concept,” Matlow says.
For free WiFi to truly take off, he adds, the biggest challenge is convincing Torontonians that the service is a smart use of their tax dollars.
“To respond to that apprehension, we need to demonstrate that it need not be at a high cost to taxpayers,” Matlow says, adding that the benefits reaped—investment and tourism—would surely outweigh the costs.
In response to Matlow’s letter, councillors on the committee referred him to the government management committee, which they claim is a more appropriate avenue for implementing the proposal.
The next government management meeting will be held Oct. 15, and Matlow is expected to speak. If approved, the plan will move forward to the city council in November.