Wi-Fi to the people

Photo: iStock

Spend the ferry commute across the harbour video chatting without a care for maxing out the data plan. Pop into a downtown coffee shop and don’t worry about scouting out today’s wireless password.

Free public Wi-Fi hotspots will be a reality in downtown Halifax and Dartmouth in the near future.

In February, Council endorsed a public capital improvement campaign: a shopping list of projects to revitalize the urban core. Public Wi-Fi was on it. City staffers including Jim Kirk, manager of service management and operations, talked to administrators in several cities around the country who installed public Wi-Fi in a number of ways to get a feel for the idea.

Staff sent a non-binding request for information on July 10 to gauge interest in the market and get an idea of the cost. “It gives us a better sense of what’s out there so if we get approval to buy this, which is when we get to the request for proposals stage, we go into that with our eyes wide open,” Kirk says. “We got a ton of interest. We got 11 responses, which we’re very pleased with.”

The responses, weighing in at around 1,000 pages, came from local and national communications companies all with their own ideas of what Halifax’s public Wi-Fi might look like. Halifax Regional Council was impressed and voted in October to issue a formal call for proposals.

“We’ve learned a lot about this, we have a sense of what this could look like and we think we can articulate what that is and we think we should go establish a partnership with someone to help us deliver it.”

It might seem Halifax is a little late to the game. Fredericton had public Wi-Fi in 2003, Moncton in 2007. Kirk says he can’t speak to why HRM hasn’t done this before, but it has been making changes in the past few years to update IT issues like creating a new website.

The fact HRM is looking at public Wi-Fi now shows a shift towards embracing technology, he says. Being later to the game gives Halifax a chance to learn from other cities’ experiences, too. “We’re trying to think a little bigger from a technology perspective and be a little more forward thinking and progressive,” he says. “We see this as an opportunity that can help us in the short term and the long term from a service delivery to the public perspective.”

Fredericton was the first city in Canada to offer free public Wi-Fi in a variety of public spaces, but it happened in a roundabout way. Over a decade ago, Fredericton created a city-owned company to take care of the city’s communications needs and build a fibre network across town.

This served as a backbone for the Wi-Fi radios. The city-owned company has other customers and the profits pay for public Wi-Fi. But it was never meant to compete with the big boys in the telecommunications world, and not meant to provide free Wi-Fi at home or at work, just in between.

“If we hadn’t done that infrastructure for another reason, it would have been hard to say let’s put Wi-Fi radios all over the place and backhaul that stuff to the internet,” says Maurice Gallant, chief information officer for the City of Fredericton. It costs the city about $60,000 a year for upkeep and to replace the radios every five years.

Fredericton’s free Wi-Fi is not everywhere, but it’s anywhere a tourist might be, Gallant says. The Fred E-Zone also plays into the campaign to market Fredericton as a smart city to attract IT companies. While Gallant can’t point to their public Wi-Fi as the reason they’ve sold business licenses to IT firms over the past decade, he believes it’s helped. “I can tell you that it got an awful lot of mind share,” Gallant says. “I can tell you what we did then because it was very early in the game, got a lot of attention.”

As smart devices with data plans supersede laptops, public Wi-Fi might not get as much attention. But Gallant says it’s still worth doing if a municipality can build a sustainable model. “We think it still has value in that space, but it’s not necessarily the only play or the play for everybody to do,” he adds.

HRM doesn’t plan to own or maintain Wi-Fi radios. Kirk wants to contract out the service but manage the specifics. There’s lots to think about: security, how much data a user will be able to access, speed of the service, and how the service can grow in the years ahead. The cost is hard to pin down at this point because the service provider would likely make money with advertising, which would bring down the cost to the municipality.

In the beginning, Kirk says he believes the biggest benefactors of free Wi-Fi will be tourists. But long term, free Wi-Fi has a lot of potential. Business directories, maps, coupons, advertisements for sales in local shops would all evolve with the Wi-Fi. “You walk off a cruise ship and you’re from another country so the cost of using your cell phone is prohibitive and you see Halifax Wi-Fi is available and you hit that,” Kirk says. “It takes you to a portal and recommends some places you might like to go and see, some places you might want to eat, a business directory and other information that would enrich your stay like an audio walking tour.”

Wi-Fi also has potential to cost effectively expand the network for city staffers. “As we have this Wi-Fi technology in place we can tap into it and leverage it,” Kirk says.

International students who tend to cluster in coffee shops to video chat home will be able to stand in Grand Parade and show off the sites to family back home. And speaking of students, the 30,000-plus who attend post-secondary in HRM wouldn’t mind being able to research and write an essay on a park bench.

Students are limited to where they can get work done, says Matthew FitzGerald-Chamberlain, who graduated from computer science at Dalhousie University in May and is now working for a downtown tech company. “You can go to the library or the coffee shop but that’s a fairly small amount of places you can go and get work done,” he says.

While eager to see free Wi-Fi downtown, FitzGerald-Chamberlain says Halifax needs to get it right. Too often cities make the mistake of trying it out just a little bit instead of a full, universal implementation. “Pilot projects are great but there any number of these pilot projects that weren’t really given the chance to succeed,” says. “I think the first thing they need to do is put it where the people want to be, not just try it out and then be surprised when people aren’t using it. “

Marc Rickard, owner of the Bike Peddler in downtown Dartmouth, sees enormous potential for free public Wi-Fi. Tourists fresh off the cruise ship would jump on the free Wi-Fi to search out bike rentals or restaurant menus. “I think definitely it could help draw people in,” Rickard says. “In our new shop where the rentals are, to have that ability to say here’s a map with all the spots pinpointed on it, you can use your smart device as your map that way and go around and check a few out. I think it would be an excellent opportunity.” Museums could tap into the Wi-Fi and add some interactive elements to their exhibits, Rickard adds.

There’s a lot the city and province could do to help out tourists like making transit more tourist friendly and updating signs to direct them to walking and cycling routes, according to Rickard. “I see HRM and Nova Scotia in particular being rather behind the ball as far as modern tourism goes,” Rickard says.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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