Charlottetown gets Wifi Everywhere. Not.

You may have read this Globe and Mail story this morning, especially the part that says (emphasis mine):

Bell Canada’s wireless high-speed Internet service will be available in coming days in markets across the country, including Vancouver, Calgary, Hamilton, Montreal, and Charlottetown, the source said.

And you may have thought to yourself “wow, wifi all over Charlottetown — that’s cool.” You may have entertained visions of checking your email at the waterfront with your wifi-equipped laptop. Using Plazes everywhere. And who knows what else.

Alas, this isn’t wireless Internet as we know it. Here’s the real story, courtesy of Telecom Update:

Bell Canada and Rogers Communications have both begun offering wireless broadband Internet service in 20 cities across Canada, using “pre-WiMAX” technology developed by NextNet, a U.S. company owned by Craig McCaw. The underlying wireless network is owned by Inukshuk Wireless, a Bell-Rogers joint venture formed last year.

There’s more information about the technical side of this, from the source, in this Bell news release:

Sympatico High Speed Unplugged uses a small, portable wireless modem which connects to a customer’s computer. The modem, in turn, connects wirelessly to the Inukshuk network using Aliant cellular towers in the region — providing Internet connectivity. The service is an integral part of Aliant’s continued investment in its broadband and wireless networks, and related services, in the region.

This “portable wireless modem” isn’t the wifi card that you’ve got in your laptop that you use to jack into free wifi at the local coffee shop, it’s a $250 ($99 with a 2-year contract) proprietary device that’s about the size of a paperback book and requires a power outlet to operate. In other words, it’s not actually portable at all.

Oh, and it’s not free either: rates start at $45/month, which gets you 512 Kbps of bandwidth with a cap of 2GB combined up/down usage every month.

This distinction is important to note because, to the uninitiated (i.e. almost everyone) wireless is wireless is wireless. So when they read “Aliant Launches Wireless Broadband Service in Atlantic Canada,” they read “wifi, everywhere.” I know this to be true because, by coincidence, I was at a meeting this morning at Charlottetown City Hall to talk about the possibility of creating a free wifi zone in the city’s downtown core and the Globe article was brought out to demonstrate that “perhaps the market is taking care of this.”

Now I actually think that there’s not a huge rationale for the city becoming involved in publicly funded wifi, mostly because the problem seems to be taking care of itself, and free wifi doesn’t do too much for people who can’t afford a computer to begin with (which is the real digital divide problem that public bodies should concern themselves with). But it’s important to distinguish between “public wifi” and “proprietary for-fee Internet from a private company.”

The ability to roll out low-cost wireless networks using cheap hardware (Dad bought a wireless access point at Future Shop for $9.99) has been a revolutionary thing. Revolutionary because, at least in a small way, it’s moved us towards thinking of ubiquitous Internet access as we think about air and water, and not as we think about telephone and cable television service. When companies like Bell and Rogers make plays like this, it is, make no mistake, the dying attempts of legacy network providers trying to, yet again, attach proprietary meters to their pipes. The pipes might be invisible this time around, but the meters are there nonetheless, and that’s not a Good Thing.


alexander o'neill's picture
alexander o'neill on April 1, 2006 - 01:07 Permalink

They’re forgetting to do what the American telcos are going full steam ahead at, lobbying state governments to outlaw municipal Wireless Internet programs.

Charles's picture
Charles on April 1, 2006 - 03:18 Permalink

I don’t get it. $45 for a slower, capped, not-very-portable high speed alternative to a $45 cable/DSL service? That’s pretty stupid even for Island Tel. Now if it worked in places that can’t get cable or DSL…

steve's picture
steve on April 1, 2006 - 12:00 Permalink

Montreal has set up free wi-fi on St. Laurent Boulevard, recognizing that it will be a draw for the arty creative types who live in the neighbourhood and make the city tick. It’s good business.

Marcus's picture
Marcus on April 1, 2006 - 22:53 Permalink

Every major population centre in Canada and the USA has lost out to the vision of municipal officials in places as obscure as Philadelphia, PA and Fredericton, NB…. as far as wi-fi goes.

In these enlightened municipalities, freely available wi-fi coverage is being implemented or has been implemented across their entire jurisidictions and is viewed in the same light as providing water and sewer services or street lights — an underlying infrastructure that will foster economic growth and well-being for the population as a whole.

In my Fred E-zone experience, you can indeed go out to Odell Park, or along the Saint John riverfront, or sit at the airport terminal or out at the Irving truck stop on the highway, or just sit in your own house and freely connect to a very decent wi-fi network.

And gee… Fredericton is also a city which has decided to get ISO 9001 certified and has a pretty competent city staff who actually repair potholes and keep streets in decent shape, where they replace antiquated narrow sidewalks with workable concrete ones, not the stupid tourist-oriented interlocking brick crap that Charlottetown has opted for in order to compete with such wonderful tourist meccas like Freeport, ME….

And the waste of money, buying Dupont Trolley transit buses that look like street cars and having the gall to call them “trolleys” (they are buses, period) when Charlottetown has never had a streetcar or tram network and this province was stupid enough to let its “real” rail network be abandoned back in 1989. Brilliant folks the politicians of Charlottetown and PEI are.

Given the lack of vision from municipal and provincial politicos, I don’t think you’ll ever see something like free wi-fi available in this town or province, unless you live near Peter’s house, or a local hotel perhaps… Tell ‘em to take their laptops to Freddy Beach or Philly.

Matt's picture
Matt on April 14, 2006 - 14:29 Permalink

You guys have missed the point. This is high speed internet for those poor saps amongst us who don’t live in the land of DSL or Cable. It’s about time this service is available because dial-up sucks.

Isaac's picture
Isaac on April 14, 2006 - 15:48 Permalink

This is actually a pretty cool announcement. The gear they are using is pre-WiMax — a great technology that will find its way into integrated laptop wireless chips in the next 12 months.

Matt and Charles actually got it right:
The reason its priced the way it is because the CRTC okayed the venture because they are specifically trageting rural users and places where DSL and Cable don’t currently reach. The huge modem doesn’t matter to people in places like this, because it will be used mostly by desktop users.

But once WiMax is standardized, in theory the Bell gear will be updated, new wifi cards will support the standard, and many laptops will have the cards built in, and suddenly you have decent high speed wireless internet blanketing most of the country.

Ken's picture
Ken on April 14, 2006 - 23:55 Permalink

I’m working in Cingular’s network in the US, gearing up for UMTS deployment. The UMTS network does data at speeds up to 2Mb. I’ve connected using a Nokia handset with cord to my PC’s USB port and gotten speeds up to 800Kb.
The sad news is people are slow to adopt UMTS, and it still costs too much, so at this point they are just positioning.

The real popular wireless card (PCMCIA)is EDGE which sells for about $99 and then costs about $49/mo for speeds of up to 200kb. I know a few people who actually use this.

Sounds like the Aliant service is doomed by the device being too big.
I’ll bet they cashed in on some money from Ottawa to provide wireless data, and this goose is cooked before it even hits the stores. With so many alternative systems entering the market, and new technology breakthroughs it won’t last long.

In about five years all of Canada will have a wireless data network based on the radio towers of Aliant and Rogers and it will cost about $50/mo and it will be a PCMCIA card or a cable from your handset. Wherever you have a digital cell signal now, you will have internet access soon. It will be provided by infrastructure made by Nortel, Ericsson, Nokia or Motorola — not by Inukshuk