Ten days until Edmonton's first BarCamp

barcampedmonton In just ten days, Edmonton’s tech community will converge at the World Trade Centre downtown for BarCampEdmonton1. Our recent DemoCamps have been extremely successful, and this is another great way to help the community grow:

Barcamp is an ad-hoc gathering of people in and interested in the Edmonton tech community. BarCamp is a series of loosely scheduled 20 minute presentations/discussions about whatever the community is interested in.

We are planning on having three different presentation rooms, as well as a couple of discussion rooms/areas, a “business” room, a “tech” room, and a “misc” room. Ultimately the topics will be whatever the community want them to be.

That’s the spirit of BarCamp – community driven!

I’ll be helping Eric setup free wireless at the venue. It’s a topic I’d love to talk more about – the state of wireless in Edmonton. I’d also love to talk more about Twitter, especially considering my talk at last month’s BarCampCalgary was very well received.

I’m hoping for a good turnout full of both new and familiar faces. Here are all the details:

WHO: You!
WHAT: Edmonton’s first BarCamp!
WHERE: Edmonton World Trade Centre, Floor 6 (600-9990 Jasper Avenue)
WHEN: Saturday, July 19th, 2008 from 10am until 4pm
WHY: Meet new people, learn new things, have a great time!

Unlike with DemoCamp, we need you to sign up for BarCamp. Do it soon before space runs out! Bring your ideas, your gadgets, and your enthusiasm. See you on the 19th!

More than 100,000 have used Meraki's Free the Net

meraki VentureBeat is reporting today that more than 100,000 people in the San Francisco area have used Meraki’s Free the Net WiFi service. That’s good news for the city, considering the much-talked about Earthlink service was abandoned. Maybe the business model is the reason:

Unlike Earthlink, Meraki isn’t seeking the city government’s financial support or approval, and it isn’t looking to make money from the network, either. Instead, [Chief Executive Sanjit Biswas] describes Free the Net as a “testbed” and showcase for the company’s wireless technology, which Meraki then sells elsewhere.

The company also runs local ads, but apparently doesn’t make any money from them.

Wireless is something I hope to talk more about at the upcoming BarCampEdmonton1. I would love to see a wireless service in Edmonton with over 100,000 users. I think the Meraki approach (not relying on the government) is probably the best way to accomplish that.

My friend Eric is going to be enabling WiFi at BarCampEdmonton1, so if you’re interested in learning more about how Meraki and Open Mesh work, definitely come down and ask some questions! We’d love to show you how it works.

And if you’d like to help expand the network in Edmonton, check out wirelessedmonton.ca.

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.

Banff Day 2

Faced with the prospect of $24 for the day for parking or walking for an hour in the rain, I decided this morning to make my way to the Fairmont Banff Springs on the Roam bus. I didn’t know this, but as of June 2nd, Banff is home to Canada’s first all-hybrid bus fleet. Adult fare is $2, and the ride from my hotel on one end of Banff Avenue to the Fairmont on the other was only about 15 minutes.

The first day of the conference went very well, though the wireless was pretty crappy. As more and more people got out their laptops and connected, the speed and reliability of the wifi plummeted. On more than one occasion I crossed my fingers as I pressed the “Publish” button.

You can read all of my nextMEDIA 2008 coverage at Techvibes.

This evening the weather was much nicer, so I walked from the Fairmont back to downtown. The sidewalks are all extremely wide, which I guess is no surprise given that Banff is a major tourist town. I walked the rest of the way back to my hotel tonight too.

Banff Bus nextMEDIA Jeff Barr & Kurt Kratchman Banff Banff The Underground Studio

Tomorrow is going to be just as packed as today, but I’m excited. There are a few sessions tomorrow that look quite interesting, and I’m trying to get a mini-tweetup going. I love meeting fellow Twitter users!

As promised, I’ve written a review of Timbers, the Italian restaurant I ate at last night. You can read it at Only Here for the Food.

The power cable is holding us back

power I spent some time over the weekend chatting with my friend Eric Warnke, who owns and operates the Third on Whyte Internet cafe here in Edmonton. We talked about a bunch of things, but mostly about wireless mesh networks. I’ve been writing about “wireless everywhere” for over five years now (since Imagine Cup 2003 to be exact), and Eric is one of those guys who is actually making it happen.

Eric has been experimenting with both the Meraki and Open Mesh technologies recently. There are others available as well, and we briefly brainstormed about creating our own little devices. The technology for extending 802.11g wireless is actually surprisingly simple and mature. And on the horizon of course, is WiMax and a host of other emerging technologies.

The problem with all of them, is power.

Even if the hardware becomes extremely energy efficient, each part still requires at least a little bit of power. The obvious solution for a mesh network with nodes located outdoors is to use solar panels, except that Edmonton’s climate is very unfriendly to such an idea (and don’t forget that solar panels are still relatively inefficient). That leaves us with either batteries or a power cable.

The main problem with batteries at the moment is that they need to be quite large if you want them to last for any reasonable about of time. Think of a laptop battery or the battery for an electric drill – each is about four times the size of the wireless components, and probably ten times the weight. Then there’s the problem of replacing the batteries when they die, or changing them when they need recharging.

So we’re stuck with the power cable. Despite all the technological progress we’ve made over the last 100 years, we’re still tethered by the power cable.

The first two chapters of Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch provide an extremely engaging history of Henry Burden, Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull, and the other individuals who were instrumental in making electricity the utility it is today. I like this part in particular:

Unlike lesser inventors, Edison didn’t just create individual products; he created entire systems. He first imagined the whole, then he built the necessary pieces, making sure they all fit together seamlessly.

Of course, Edison’s DC system eventually lost out to the superior AC. Still, I can’t help but think that we desperately need a modern day Edison. Just as Edison re-imagined urban gaslight systems, we need someone to re-imagine the modern electrical system.

Is wireless energy transfer the answer? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better to start with a question – how can we eliminate the need for contact? Or at least make that contact less restrictive? For instance, instead of connecting a wireless node to a cable inside a lamppost, why can’t I just stick the node on the lamppost itself? That would be a good first step.

We need “power everywhere” before we’ll ever get to “wireless everywhere”. Unfortunately, batteries, solar panels, and other technologies aren’t getting us any closer to that reality at the moment. Surely there must be something else then?

En Route to San Antonio

I’m traveling to San Antonio today for the 2008 Questionmark Users Conference, taking place through Wednesday at the Westin Riverwalk. I didn’t find out I would be attending until late this week, so the flight options were pretty limited. I was scheduled to leave Edmonton this morning at 6 AM.

I left my house a little later than I wanted to, meaning I didn’t get to the airport until just before 5 AM. That would normally have been okay (though cutting it close), except that the self-service check-in machines were all down. So I got in the incredibly long line and started to wait. I gave up on that after about ten minutes, jumped into the first class/business line, and pleaded my case.

The service agent was really helpful, and she helped rebook me on a later flight. Frankly I was fairly surprised at how busy the airport was so early on a Sunday morning. Anyway, I’m in Denver now, on a long layover. I should arrive into San Antonio tonight at around 6:30 CDT.

The great thing about the Denver International Airport is that they have free, ad-supported wireless Internet – something I wish we had in Edmonton. I’ve been using it for a while now, and it seems pretty quick. Uploads are really fast actually, faster than my connection at home, at least to Flickr! I uploaded a bunch of pictures from Megan’s birthday celebration last night. Happy Birthday Megan 🙂

More later!

Edmonton Next Gen WiFi Focus Group

edmonton next gen Unfortunately I am not going to be able to make it to this event (I’m going to San Antonio on Sunday) but I thought I’d mention it in case someone else wants to go and can fill me in later! Edmonton’s Next Gen organization is hosting a focus group on WiFi, to discuss the next steps in their initiatives for public wireless access in our city:

Now, Next Gen and the City’s IT branch are preparing a new report to City Council, which will give an update on the success of the pilot projects over the past year, and recommend next steps to take towards Next Gen’s vision. If you would like to take part in deciding what those next steps will be, please contact Megan Pilby at megan.pilby@edmonton.ca to RSVP for our upcoming session.

The deadline to RSVP is tomorrow at noon. The event takes place on Sunday, April 13th, from 1pm to 4pm. Location details will be given once you RSVP.

For background information, you can read the NextGen report on WiFi (PDF). To learn more about Edmonton’s Next Gen, check out the website.

Starbucks to offer free Wi-Fi at most U.S. locations

starbucks It’s announcements like this one that make me wish I lived south of the border. Beginning this spring, Starbucks and AT&T will offer free and paid wireless access at “many” locations around the United States:

Starbucks said Monday it will give customers that use its Starbucks purchase card two hours of free wireless access per day. After that, it will cost $3.99 for a two-hour session. Monthly memberships will cost $19.99 and include access to any of AT&T’s 70,000 hot spots worldwide.

How freaking sweet is that?! Two free hours if you use a Starbucks card. Starbucks Gossip confirmed with PR that they mean the gift card kind, not the Duetto, which is even better! And if you work at Starbucks, you get unlimited free access:

As an added benefit for the more than 100,000 Starbucks partners in the U.S., all Starbucks partners will receive free AT&T Wi-Fi accounts allowing them to use the network in Starbucks company-operated locations offering Wi-Fi access.

Today’s news ends a six-year deal that Starbucks had with AT&T rival T-Mobile. There’s more on the story at Techmeme.

Please Starbucks, bring this to Canada! I would absolutely love to drop in to Starbucks, turn on my iPod touch, and check out the headlines (or Twitter/Facebook mobile heh).

Please? Pretty please?

Read: The Associated Press

REVIEW: Brother HL-4070CDW Color Laser Printer

Wireless!Like Tris Hussey, I received a comic from Darren Barefoot back in November with an offer to review a new Brother color laser printer. Unlike Tris, I am really late with my review! In any case, I jumped at the chance and have had the printer for a couple months now.

There were a few options to choose from (all part of the new color laser lineup) but it was an easy decision for me – the Brother HL-4070CDW has wireless connectivity! So that’s the one I received.

My first impression was "wow, where the heck am I going to put that?" The printer is gigantic, as is the box it came in. We’re talking 75 pounds of printer. It was immediately clear that this is a business printer, not a consumer one. It has been sitting on my kitchen table ever since. But because it’s wireless, I have been using it!

Setup took me quite a while, but it was no fault of the printer. I didn’t have a network cable long enough to go from the kitchen table to the router, nor did I have long enough USB or parallel cables (isn’t that odd, that a fancy new printer with wireless still has a parallel port? because it’s for "business" I guess). And while I have the popular Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G router, it’s one of the earliest revisions, so it doesn’t have the "SecureEasySetup" feature. That left me with some complicated wireless notebook setup routine, or entering the details manually via the LCD and buttons on the printer itself. I opted for the latter, and eventually got it working. I think an improvement would be some sort of USB-key support, where the installer on my computer would copy something to a USB-key that I could plug into the printer for setup.

LCD Information Panel The Printer The gigantic box it came in Parallel ports? Seriously?

I despise installing printer software, but the setup for this printer was pretty painless actually. No problems, and it didn’t install a bunch of unwanted crap. I think I’ve had a few too many horrible experiences with HP software, and that has left a bad taste. Fortunately Brother decided to keep it simple.

Oh yeah I had to stick in the toner cartridges too, but that was really easy. New printers these days are pretty idiot-proof with the labels and tape that must be removed, and the cartridges themselves clicked nicely into place. They sent me the standard yield cartridges which can print 2500 black and white copies, and 1500 color. The high yield cartridges bump that up to 5000 black and white, 4000 color.

Inside the front Now for the actual printing! Bottom line – the quality is superb. The color pages I have printed look wonderful, with really sharp, bright colors. The black and white pages are good too, nice and crisp. My main complaint applies to all laser printers – I hate how the pages are curved! Because of the heat used during the printing, the pages don’t really lie flat, they curve with the shape of the printer. Not a deal-breaker, but you don’t have that problem with an inkjet. I didn’t do an official timing, but printing black and white pages full of text seems pretty close to the advertised 21 pages per minute.

I’ve used laser printers before, and there’s one problem I’ve always had – paper jams! That’s all I can remember about the laser printers of the past. Fortunately, I haven’t had any paper jams with this printer. I have even stuck thick paper (like the greeting card quality) on top of normal paper in the tray without any problems.

How about the wireless? No surprise here – I absolutely love the ability to print wirelessly! It’s just so useful. Whenever I can cut a cord I will. It gives you more flexibility about where you can put the printer too. The printer has a sleep mode, which it goes into after a period of inactivity, but it wakes up when I send a job, even wirelessly (which I guess is obvious, but still seemed somewhat surprising for some reason).

As I said, this printer isn’t meant for the home user. It’s big, heavy, and expensive (MSRP $629.99 CDN). That said, it’s a wonderful printer for business users. Cartridges cost about $85 for standard yield, and $160 for high yield. That’s probably quite a bit more cost-effective than an inkjet. Business users who need to take advantage of the wireless capabilities should especially check this printer out. If I was doing a lot of color printing in an office setting, the Brother HL-4070CDW would definitely be on my list of printers to consider.

Telus Mobility switching to GSM?

Post Image It’s a headline I never thought I’d read – Telus considers dumping is ‘Betamax’ of wireless networks. Apparently executives are taking a look at how feasible it is to move from the current CDMA standard to the more widely used GSM. As a Telus Mobility subscriber this is exciting news! I’m not holding my breath though.

The idea "has been presented at the board level and is being actively considered," said one source familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified. The source cautioned that there were no guarantees Telus will go ahead with a changeover, which analysts say could cost about $500 million.

The Rogers network is the only GSM one in Canada at the moment, with both Telus and Bell operating on CDMA. There are significant advantages to being on GSM – most new phones are launched for it first (such as the RAZR and iPhone) and Telus could get a cut of the roaming fees that Rogers collects.

Seems to me that if they were going to do this, they should have done it years ago. The article points out that "4G" networks are on the way, though no one knows how many years it will be until a standard is adopted. It would suck if Telus switched to GSM, only to have to build out a 4G network soon thereafter.

Read: TheStar.com

UPDATE (10/6/2009): The new HSPA+ network built by Telus and Bell will be live in November, when both carriers will start selling the iPhone.