Outlook gloomy for more free public Wi-Fi in Edmonton

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Outlook gloomy for more free public Wi-Fi in Edmonton

Postby jon » Sat Jul 29, 2017 3:56 pm

Outlook gloomy for more free public Wi-Fi in Edmonton, experts say
Mitch Goldenberg
Edmonton Journal
Published on: July 28, 2017
Last Updated: July 29, 2017 3:36 PM MDT

Edmonton’s access to free public Wi-Fi is lagging, and despite a wide-range of benefits, few potential stakeholders appear to be phishing for a more expansive network, experts say.

Free internet can be accessed at Edmonton Public Library locations and Open City Wi-Fi at municipal buildings and some LRT stations, but Michael McNally, a library and information studies professor at the University of Alberta, says the amount of free public hotspots sends a clear signal.

“Looking at the city’s current 77 locations, it’s not really an ambitious project,” McNally said of the Open City Wi-Fi network. “In contrast, Olds has over 80 hotspots for (less than 9,500) people.”

Last year, the CRTC ruled internet access was a basic service and is aiming to expand broadband services to remote regions.

David Woodruff, data co-ordinator at Boyle Street Community Services, said those services are also crucial to inner-city residents at risk of poverty.

“Many organizations are increasingly putting their services online, from ordering food bank hampers, applying for subsidies, Kijiji does wonders for finding housing and MyAlberta support services,” Woodruff said. “The only place is the library, and that is time restricted and requires some to travel 45 minutes to reach it.”

McNally added that social inequalities, such as income and education level, are becoming increasingly associated with lack of access to the internet and devices like computers, tablets and smart phones.

“It’s not only that people with better education and wealth have better access, but they are further enhancing their economic standing through the internet,” McNally said. “Much of the job application systems are online, banking is increasingly online and educational opportunities are moving online for people to take advantage of.”

Private leadership

London, Ont., is home to a free public Wi-Fi network that provides blanket coverage to a radius of 43 downtown blocks. The initiative was conceived and built by Downtown London, the local business association, which eventually drew the municipal government to invest in network infrastructure that costed around $70,000 to build.

Downtown London’s Kathy McLeod said the network is good for businesses in the area and worth the $18,000 per year price tag to maintain.

“It started out as recruitment initiatives, does Wi-Fi bring more people to the area?” McLeod said. “We are able to get demographic info and marketing data. Nothing personal, but we can pick it up and see who our customers are. We are happy to let them use our network. It’s just another reason for them to come downtown.”

Ian O’Donnell, executive director of Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association, said he has not heard any demand for better internet in at least the past four years. He said private networks such as Shaw Open and cellular data plans may have diminished the demand.

“It wouldn’t be something we would drive, but we would support it,” O’Donnell said.

Jacqui Chesterton, strategic co-ordinator for the city’s information technology branch, said her department’s current mandate is to expand it to more LRT stations. An average of 11,000 people connect to Open City Wi-Fi each day.

“We are not in the marketplace as a competitive provider,” she said. “Cellular connectivity is much more flexible in what you can get out of it. The signals are wider, there is established infrastructure … I (plans) were not so prohibitive, that would be the direction most people would go.”

While the scope and cost of similar blanket coverage in Edmonton would significantly outweigh London’s, major cities around the world have stepped up to the task.

New York, Seoul and Helsinki are a few examples of places that have used either private, public or combined partnerships to create long-reaching free public networks. In addition to helping low-income residents gain increased access, free public networks are welcomed by tourists.

Renee Williams, communications director for Tourism Edmonton, said the organization is grateful to businesses and attractions that provide their own network, such as West Edmonton Mall, and said an expanded public Wi-Fi network would improve guest experience.

“We would love to see more on the free Wi-Fi side of things,” Williams said. “A lot (of tourists) are so excited to be experiencing certain things and would love nothing more than to share that in real time with the markets that they are from.”

Williams added that Wi-Fi is a method of payment for some tourists, and would help them navigate the city between galleries and attractions.

“It would be nice to spread it out a bit more,” she said. “That extra step in the visitor’s experience makes a mark in their mind.”
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