Edmonton Wireless, City Council Meeting

This morning, Mack Male and I attended a city council meeting where the Next Gen committee was presenting the results of their wifi pilot project. The agenda called for the City-Wide Wireless Internet and Wi-Fi Service – Pilot Project Internal Evaluation to be the first item at 9:30 a.m. Unfortunately they got wrapped up in protocol announcements and they didn’t actually start talking about it until around 10:30.

The city’s IT Director, Steven Gordon did most of the talking. According to their surveys, people expect the service to be there. The public system is based upon the existing city employee network, the public section just builds on top of it. This means that for incremental costs a public access point can be placed anywhere the city has infrastructure. Steven thinks that piggy-backing on the city wifi is the best option to keep costs low.

They mentioned how some other cities have tried municipal wifi as well. Apparently Philadelphia ran their own city wifi project that ran around $3 million, however they have partnered with another company. I’m 100% sure on this though. Councilor Don Iveson mentioned that some transit corridors in Seattle allow wifi access, like in the back of busses. Calgary also had a city wifi project that ultimately failed.

There are some major problems with Edmonton’s current public wifi:

  • E-mail is blocked
  • Traffic is filtered
  • Filtering drives a lot of the expenses
  • It’s insanely expensive to set up a hotspot (like roughly $20,000 expensive)

Councilor Ben Henderson brought up the filtering problem and he strongly encourages the notion that we open it up. Based on his past experiences traveling and using our own wifi he’s had frustrating experiences when he couldn’t access his email.

Councilor Karen Leibovici doesn’t think this project is self sufficient and it won’t make any money. She posed the question of why we should spend this money on public wifi when the private sector is already competing. Even without my bias I agree (yes, quite the statement, I know :P). I’m of the opinion that the government shouldn’t try to compete with the private sector, unless it’s in an out of control industry that needs regulation.

Gordon feels that “we’ve struck the right balance,” but he did agree to create a business case outlining a cost benefit analysis as councilor Linda Sloan requested. This was seconded by Ron Hayter who would also like to see a numbers break down and the implications involved.

So the council moved to continue the exploration of free wifi. I believe that if they are able to bring the costs down to a reasonable level they might have a chance. Hopefully our taxes aren’t going to be wasted on super secure and expensive wifi hotspots. Many people see open free wifi as a utility and they believe it will give Edmonton some credibility as a world class place for travellers, business, and young people alike.

Eric is a jack of all trades. From running social networks to internet cafes, he’s been in the startup scene for almost a decade. Recently returned from a stint at Start-Up Chile, Eric spends his days focusing on his startups Backup Box and Surreal WiFi.

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