Calgary community test site for free Wi-Fi

By Daniel Pagan

Lucky students living in the northwest neighbourhood of Hawkwood can now access free Wi-Fi, with no “wires” attached. In the past, students would need to visit the university campus, the Calgary airport or Starbucks for free wireless. But now a local wireless company, Naeco, is installing 23 phonebook-sized Internet nodes in the community on top of lamp posts at a cost of $5,000 each.

Naeco business development vice-president Alain Dubreuil explained that this “mesh network” is a brand new technology. In mesh networking each Internet node acts as an independent router, allowing for rerouting around broken connections. The planning and deployment stage of the project took two-and-a-half years to complete.

“It is the first of its kind in the country,” said Dubreuil. “There were no procedures in place. They all had to be made.”

Dubreuil said the Go Naeco free network offers a low-speed connection, while residents can purchase a high-speed version for an as-of-yet undetermined fee. If the Hawkwood network is successful, Naeco could expand to other communities.

“There always will be the free bandwidth available to all,” said Dubreuil. “But we also have upgraded services with more value and better pricing than our competitors.”

Ward 12 Alderman Gord Lowe suggested the wireless network in Hawkwood was a positive development, given the importance of wireless communication in modern society. Lowe said the network is a big opportunity for Calgarians to communicate with city council, but city hall has no current plans for a citywide public wireless network.

University of Alberta business student Eric Warnke is considering a network in Calgary, after his successes in Edmonton. Last year he set up a free Wi-Fi project in the provincial capital, when he struggled with broadcasting to other shops on Whyte Avenue. The self-funded project is growing, with over 25 wireless hotspots.

“It’s just a matter of pounding the streets and convincing businesses to get on board,” he said. “It’s definitely in our business plan to get to Calgary and eventually all of Canada.”

Obstacles to a citywide free public Wi-Fi network in Calgary lie in technical and monetary issues, according to U of C wireless expert Carey Williamson.

Yet he is hopeful about Wi-Fi in Calgary, due to wireless research done at the U of C and cable companies, like Telus, and businesses offering free Wi-Fi, such as bus line Red Arrow.

“It would need a substantial investment ­– cash, hardware, software, tech support — and commitment from the municipal government, the provincial government and multiple industry partners or vendors,” said Williamson. “The irony is that we want the service for free, yet there are significant costs to deploying it, and few organizations are willing to outlay cash with no prospective return on investment.”

According to U of C alumni Reau Sauter, who runs the freecalgarywifi account on Twitter, several pubs and coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi networks for their patrons and visitors, such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons and the Kilkenney pub. Last summer, Calgary’s international airport also started offering free Wi-Fi for travellers. The U of C has had Wi-Fi service for students and faculty since 2005. Cities such as Frediction, Moncton and Prince Albert currently offer free public Wi-Fi networks in Canada.

Despite the good news, public Wi-Fi networks have encountered resistance. In 2007 San Francisco scrapped its municipal wireless network after private partner Earthlink pulled out of negotiations with the city. In early November, a public wireless service was disabled in Coshocton, Ohio, after a person used it to illegally download a movie.

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