City-provided Wi-Fi project to continue in Edmonton

wireless This morning I attended an Edmonton City Council meeting along with Eric. I had never been to a council meeting before, so the whole process was rather interesting and at times even entertaining. That said, I wonder how they get anything done! Item E1 was titled “City-Wide Wireless Internet and Wi-Fi Service – Pilot Project Internal Evaluation” and was marked on the agenda as “time specific, first item at 9:30 AM”. They finally got around to it at 10:30 AM.

Two members of Next Gen Edmonton joined a representative from the city’s IT branch to provide council with an overview of the report on Wireless Edmonton that was published on May 15, 2008. I haven’t actually seen the report, but it outlines the following information:

  • The first eZones were established at City Hall, Churchill Square, Kinsmen Sports Centre, and Commonwealth Sports and Fitness Centre
  • Usage is increasing and currently averages 250 users per day with an average connection time of 30 minutes
  • Public feedback has been generally positive, and indicates a demand for expansion of the service
  • Marketing efforts have been largely word-of-mouth, supported by media coverage, signage, and brochures
  • Ongoing annual operating costs are estimated at $1000 per eZone
  • Setup costs for each new eZone are estimated at $20,000

The current service is built atop the City of Edmonton’s existing Internet infrastructure, which is how they can keep costs fairly low (Eric and I still think it’s too expensive though). That means that future eZones could quite easily be setup at any City-owned location that has Internet/wireless already for administration purposes. Other potential expansion sites include transit corridors (LRT and/or high priority bus routes) and mobile units that would travel to smaller festivals and events.

The council passed the following recommendation/motion:

  1. That the City continue to provide and promote publicly accessible Wi-Fi (Wireless Edmonton) service at Main Floor City Hall, Sir Winston Churchill Square, Kinsmen Sports Centre and Commonwealth Sports and Fitness Centre.
  2. That the City continue to explore opportunities to expand the Wireless Edmonton service where existing City network infrastructure is available and where there is a public interest, as outlined in the May 15, 2008, Corporate Services Department report 2008COT002.

There wasn’t too much discussion, but a few interesting questions were raised:

  • Councillor Ben Henderson asked about the quality of the service, noting that the current practice of filtering means that common services such as email do not work for many users.
  • Councillor Karen Leibovici questioned the business case, and wondered why the city should provide such a service when Telus, Rogers, and others already provide similar services for a fee.

I think Councillor Henderson’s question is extremely pertinent. What’s the point of offering the service if you’re just going to cripple it? I’m definitely in favor of getting rid of the filtering.

Councillor Leibovici’s question is responsible, but largely misses the point in my opinion. The city isn’t operating the wireless service to turn a profit, but rather to facilitate indirect returns. The productivity gains and everything else that comes along with having free wireless is what really matters.

The IT representative (didn’t catch his name…might have been Stephen Gordon, who is Manager of Operations) made a really great point. He said that offering the wireless service is important for Edmonton’s credibility. There’s an expectation that world class facilities have Wi-Fi available, and Edmonton needs to live up to that expectation if it wants to compete on the world stage.

The presentation today made it clear that the City of Edmonton doesn’t want to compete with commercial providers of wireless Internet access. Instead the city can serve a particular niche, offering service in public locations that commercial providers would probably ignore (such as the library). I think that makes sense.

I think more needs to be done to improve the state of wireless in Edmonton, but it doesn’t have to fall on the city. There’s definitely opportunity for the private sector to get involved. I’m glad the city is doing something though, and I look forward to the expansion of their eZones.