Toronto's Muni WiFi Plans - More Questions than Answers

It's been a fun week in the Canadian IP space. Sure, there are lots of major tech stories everyone is following 24/7 right now - RIM, Intel, Google, etc. No shortage of ink to spill on these big ones, but you won't see much about them here. There are so many journalists covering these stories all day long - I'd rather focus on other things for the blog.

This week has seen not one, but two Canadian stories getting attention in broader blogosphere. How often does that ever happen?

- Vonage Canada challenging Shaw Cable's QoS surtax on third party VoBB services to their subscribers

- Toronto Hydro's announcement to offer muni WiFi in the downtown area later this year

You don't have to go far to find coverage of either, which is nice to see. Good posts on these include Mark Evans, Mathew Ingram, Rob Hyndman, Russell Shaw and IP Democracy.

The Toronto Hydro story has been getting a lot of attention locally this week, and not just among folks like us. My mother was asking me about this the other day - when it gets on her radar, I know people are talking about it! I'm sure I'm not alone on that one.

Another sign it's on people's minds is when the story becomes the lead item in the Editorial section of today's Globe & Mail, Canada's leading national daily. Note how I said "leading". We are such a literate country, that Canada has two national dailies - the National Post too - and both are way better pubs than USAToday. Our hockey teams may not be so hot, but hey, didn't we just beat USA at the WBC? There hasn't been much sunshine for the past 6 months, but it's not so bad up here!

Anyhow, I don't have online access to the full editorial piece, but here's what I could get off their site...

Will efficiency rule in this wireless plan?

Friday, March 10, 2006, Page A16

Toronto Hydro wants to turn Toronto into a wireless universe with low-cost Internet access for all, regardless of where they live, work or play. It's an ambitious plan that has merit. The Internet has become much more than a convenient research and communication tool, and wireless messaging is much more than a toy for BlackBerry addicts. Broadband access is becoming an essential part of urban infrastructure, every bit as important to the functioning of a modern metropolis as roads, sewers and electricity. No city can afford to be left behind in the digital age. And it may well make sense for a public utility to spearhead the effort to provide such a service to the most people at the lowest possible cost.

In a country where many institutions and vital services are still state-run, these are important issues. I note the Globe's editorial piece not just because it is so high profile, but because it raises some very good questions.

Nobody - myself included - would argue against bringing muni WiFi to Toronto. This is certainly one of North America's top tech centers, and the economic engine of Canada. The editorial is really focused on the basic question as to what is the appropriate role for Toronto Hydro to play. The U.S. cities looking at WiFi struggle with the same issue, but unlike these cases, Toronto's is being driven by a state-run electrical utility. There are many issues to weigh here, and it's great to see public debate developing around it.

I'm of the view that Toronto Hydro should just provide the infrastructure, and let the private sector provide the service, with some form of revenue share that makes it fair for everybody. We know what Bell and Rogers think, and they won't stay quiet on this one. So, for anyone who's been following or blogging about this story, I'd say stick around, it's going to get interesting.