Free Internet for Whitehorse Citizens

The City of Whitehorse should provide free wireless internet access to its citizens.

Just like other services the municipality provides its population — from refuse collection to roadway maintenance — no-cost , unrestricted internet access is essential. After all, to borrow that tired cliché, we are talking about the “information superhighway.”

This isn’t a crazy idea. And it’s not unique. Other municipalities across Canada and the States offer their citizens free wireless internet access.

One maritime community is the undisputed leader in this field: Fredericton, New Brunswick.

November 2003, saw the launch of the Fred-eZone, an open wireless
network that blankets most of Frederiction’s downtown and some outlying
areas.

It means that no matter where you are in Fredericton, you can open up a
laptop computer or start up your desktop and go online. Sort of like,
no matter where you are in Whitehorse, you can start up your car and
drive somewhere.

It’s a brilliant idea for a city like Frederiction, or Whitehorse, really.

Like Whitehorse, Frederiction is a city without any real economic base
other than government. The Fred-eZone was designed as a leverage to
attract new industry and business to the community. It’s as much a
marketing sales pitch as a public service.
The Fred-eZone, however, is just one piece of the municipality’s master plan for the local internet.

They also started up a non-profit corporation that is now the city’s
largest bandwidth wholesaler. This company, e-Novations, purchases
upstream bandwidth and resells it to the municipality for their own
purposes and to supply the Fred-eZone. They also supply local
commercial interests, such as private Internet Service Providers, with
network services at low-cost.

One of the peripheral goals of e-Novations was to bring residential
high speed internet costs for Frederiction citizens more in line with
rates of other Canadians in major centres. Whitehorse could also
benefit from this, as our high speed internet costs are at least 100%
higher than other municipalities in Canada.

(A basic Northwestel residential high speed package costs $59.95 per
month; the same service in Vancouver from Telus is as low as $24.95.
The cost disparity becomes especially disgruntling when you consider
the significantly better quality of service Telus provides.)

Free municipal WiFi would also help Whitehorse bridge its own local
“digital divide”, ensuring that lower income earners can enjoy the
social benefits of the high speed internet. Many local citizens are
still stuck offline by economic circumstance.

Other communities across Canada and the US are exploring the idea of
free wireless internet. Calgary has established the “OpenCity”
initiative. It’s a pretty lackluster start, with just a few downtown
hotspots offering free wireless internet access, but it shows promise.

Kelowna is another Canadian community offering free wireless access,
but only in public buildings. Hamilton plans to turn the entire city
into a “hotspot,” meaning they’ll offer free wireless internet to all
of their citizens.

In the States, Minneapolis recently tendered a contract to build a $20
million (US) public wireless network that would be available to all of
its citizens as a public service.

Of course, commercial interests won’t like this idea. Northwestel in
particular, which currently is the primary Yukon ISP, would likely balk
at a perceived loss of control and revenue that would be caused by a
free municipal WiFi network. The truth is, Northwestel could never be
removed from the territory’s infrastructure and with a little creative
thinking, a new business model could be developed that would likely
prove more profitable for our telephone company.

Some American municipalities that have tried to improve the lifestyle
of their citizens with public internet have suffered pain at the hands
of telecommunications giants unwilling to hand over control of what is,
in essence, a public resource. Philadelphia was recently was engaged in
a nasty court battle with telecommunications giant Verizon when they
planned to offer the service.

In fact, lobbying by major corporations in the US has convinced some
States to pass anti-municipal internet legislation, effectively making
free local internet illegal.

These activities point to just how important establishing the internet
as a public utility is. In the early part of this century Adam Beck, an
Ontario provincial cabinet minister, fought corporate interests hard to
ensure electricity became a public utility rather than a private
property. This no doubt contributed to the fact that pretty much
everyone is guaranteed power in modern society.

The internet should be viewed in the same light. Its infrastructure and
services should be considered public and owned by the citizens. After
all, we’ve already invested hundreds of millions of dollars into it
through a variety of federal and territorial government programs.

It’s just up to our city council to have the foresight and leadership
to recognize the inevitable. The model has been tried, tested and
proven in Fredericton. It would easily translate to our small
geographic footprint. By working to make it happen now, Whitehorse
could establish itself as a leader in building public infrastructure
and access methods that future communities will expect as the norm.

Andrew Robulack is an IT business strategist and architect based in Whitehorse.

Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack
Originally published in the Yukon News Friday, May 6, 2005

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