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.