Toronto's Muni WiFi Plans Delayed - Not as Easy as it Looks

Very interesting story that I happened to read in passing today about Toronto Hydro Telecom's muni WiFi plans.

Catherine McLean covers telecom for the Globe & Mail, and her stories usually only run in the business section. Well, this piece ran in the front section, so the paper deemed it a local news story rather than a business. That's interesting in itself, and it pays to read the whole newspaper - which I usually do! Otherwise, I would have missed it, and you probably would too, as I haven't seen anyone else pick up on this yet.

Toronto Hydro made a splash announcing their muni WiFi plans back in March, and it was not welcome news to Bell and Rogers, the dominant wireless carriers in Toronto. That's a story unto itself, and today's news at face value wasn't really dramatic - simply put, their launch was being delayed by 2 months. No big deal - delays in service launches happen all the time.

It's the reasons for the delay that you really gotta get your head around. Some would say "only in Canada", and there's some truth to that. And others would say that a public utility answers to a higher standard than a for-profit operator, and have a social obligation to do the right thing at all times. Which, of course, raises the bigger question about whether utlilities should even be in this business. I digress.

Forgive me if this sounds a bit like David Letterman's Top 10 list, but these are not the kinds of things you'd expect to see coming up at this stage of the game. Well, I only have 3 reasons, but still...

1. Health concerns about electromagnetic signals, especially from migraine sufferers. This is a legitimate issue, no doubt, but I don't think the plans would have gotten this far along without addressing such a basic issue. I haven't followed the U.S. experience with EM signals, but given all the muni WiFi projects in play already, I'd have to think they've gotten past this one a while ago.

Sidebar - one of the great things about the online version of the news is that they publish reader comments. There are some great comments in Catherine's article about this issue (and others) - worth a read.

2. Lack of authentication to prevent illegal activity. Again, in theory, this is a valid law enforcement concern. After all, WiFi is unlicensed spectrum, and initially, the knock against it was its lack of security. Toronto Hydro has expressed concern their service will be used by drug dealers and child porn traffickers - really. Very creepy for sure, but do you really need to make this a public issue? Again, one would think such a basic flaw would have been addressed early on, and not a month away from the scheduled launch date.

3. Infrastructure can't provide 24 hour service. Incredibly, they're just discovering now that most of the lighting poles - which host the WiFi transmitters - don't have round the clock power. Huh? You're just figuring this out NOW? Well, that one's going back to the drawing board....

This is happening in a city that had very serious aspirations to host the Olympics a few years back. I'm sure Bell and Rogers are smiling, but for all these concerns, they only expect a 2 month setback for their launch.

Oh, and one other thing. They're still planning on offering the service initially for free, after which users will have to pay. Pricing hasn't been announced, and I suspect that will be determined by market conditions when the free trial is up. Here's the BUT. To access the free service, you must have a cell phone. As the article explains, to authenticate the service you need a cell phone number. I don't quite get that, but the bottom line is that the free service is conditional on having something that really has nothing to do with WiFi. Canadians aren't as saturated will cell phone as Americans, and it's unlikely that many people will run out and sign up for a cell plan just to get free WiFi. Or maybe they will. I'll bet Richard Branson and Virgin Mobile will find a marketing angle here somehow! Maybe this will accelerate the rush to get dual mode phones in the market...

Bottom line - I'm being a bit tough on Toronto Hydro Telecom, especially since the U.S. market seems to be moving ahead pretty aggressively in this space. In fact, there was some big news today about AT&T getting into the muni WiFi market by partnering with MetroFi. To follow this story further, both Om Malik and Andy Abramson have good posts from earlier today.

I digress. That all said, the bottom line is that muni WiFi is NOT as easy as it looks. Toronto Hydro's problems are fixable, and I know there are many other problems with this technology, some of which nobody seems to be able to anticipate. And of course, nobody really knows if there's even a viable market or a business case, especially as mobile phones become more powerful. So, these are small steps along the way, and today's news really has the feel of a big science experiment that's just gone a little wrong. But certainly not off the tracks. At least let's hope so.

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