Municipal Wi-Fi

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