Ski Village Goes Wireless

By Gerry Blackwell

September 22, 2003

The Whistler Resort in the mountains of British Columbia has launched an ambitious Wi-Fi hotspot service that will help pay for not just Internet access but also for improvements to the town.

Who knew that ski resorts were so competitive? When The Resort Municipality of Whistler in British Columbia, Canada decided to roll out yodel, a community-wide Wi-Fi hotzone service, getting an edge on other ski resorts was a stated objective.

"One of the benefits was definitely the competitive advantage it would give us," says John Rae, Whistler's manager of strategic alliances and marketing services, and a prime mover on the project.

"Whistler versus Aspen [CO], Whistler versus Chamonix [in France] -- we feel if we have a technology advantage it can tip the scales in our favor [with prospective visitors]."

The Whistler initiative is an interesting development in the municipal hotspot arena if for no other reason than this clear-eyed perception of the benefits.

Besides that, it's the first municipality we've heard of that has a plan in place to achieve 100-percent seamless coverage of the community. The business model -- Whistler is partnering with Fort Lauderdale, Fl.-based hotspot operator and systems integrator V-Link -- is also intriguing.

Whistler's other main objective with yodel seems even more unlikely -- to make incremental revenue to put in the town coffers. Yodel was a deliberate experiment in what Rae calls "entrepreneurial government."

The service is aimed mainly at the two million or so visitors who come to Whistler each year to ski, snow board, hike, bike and just enjoy the mountain scenery. They will pay for the Wi-Fi Internet access service, and the revenues -- at least some of them -- will be used to improve town services and amenities.

"This was actually our primary objective," Rae says. "We were aggressively seeking ways of demonstrating this seemingly oxymoronic notion of entrepreneurial government. We were challenging ourselves to find ways to generate incremental revenue for the municipality."

The seeds of the project were sewn when V-Link was in Whistler last year doing a café hotspot implementation and met with town officials. The café hotspot got Whistler officials thinking about Wi-Fi, and the project grew from there.

Phase I of the yodel roll-out is already complete. V-Link has installed 20 antenna sites so far, on the outsides of municipal and privately owned buildings. That's enough to cover about 40 buildings inside and out, or 50 percent of the main village of Whistler. The rest of the main village will be completed before ski season opens.

Although the municipality's boundaries encompass almost 100 square miles of mostly rugged mountains, the built-up parts of the town are fairly concentrated, only about 1.25 square miles. They include two other areas, one separated from the main village by about 1,600 feet (and a mountain), the other about two and a half miles away.

Wi-Fi coverage will be extended to these satellite communities -- Upper Village and Creekside -- in the first half of 2004. At that point, Whistler will boast seamless Wi-Fi coverage in all built-up areas.

For a fee of about $15 a day, $33 for three days or $51 for a week, visitors with Wi-Fi enabled PDAs and laptops will be able to surf the Net wherever they go in Whistler.

When they launch their browser and select the yodel network service -- there is one other commercial service in Whistler, plus unsecured private access points -- yodel pops up a log-in screens where users can pay either by keying in a code from an access card purchased locally, or by credit card.

It's an ambitious and bold undertaking. Somewhat surprisingly, it's not directly linked to the fact that Whistler and Vancouver, the big city down the mountain, earlier this year won their bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Yodel was conceived and already in planning a year ago.

Total cost of the project is about $145,000. V-Link is bearing the full capital cost of acquiring and installing the wireless infrastructure -- most of it from Colubris Networks. That represents three-quarters of the total. Whistler will kick in the other $36,000 to cover capital costs related to marketing and legals.

V-Link will keep 90 percent of the net income until the operation breaks even on capital expenses. After that, the partners will split the take evenly.

V-Link is a major hotspot operator in the U.S. with hospitality, marina and hotspot locations across the country, many of them name-brand hotels. The company counts three of the largest hotel chains in the world, including Embassy Suites, among its customers.

It has been using Colubris equipment for several months, although there is no exclusive agreement, says Colubris director of product marketing Carl Blume.

For the yodel network, V-Link has installed a Colubris CN3500 Access Controller, which performs AAA and other network management functions and interfaces with V-Link's proprietary billing system. The 3500 can support up to 1,024 simultaneous Wi-Fi users. The access points are Colubris CN300 Wireless LAN Bridges.

A major challenge for the project team was establishing and managing relationships with property owners and other stake holders. Initially, network planners thought they could use municipal lamp posts to mount access points and antennas. It became clear, however, that they would have to place them higher than that to get good coverage.

Although, 10 of the yodel antenna sites so far are on municipally owned buildings, Rae did have to negotiate with hotels and condo associations for roof rights to complete the coverage map. This was evidently not always an easy task.

"First we often had to get over the philosophical issue of why a municipal government was involved in this kind of entrepreneurial activity," Rae says. "They'd worry that maybe the next thing we'd get into would be property management. But once we'd get over that, they'd soon see the benefits for the community and for them."

Condo associations were offered a nominal $500 a year for roof rights. Hotels were paid less for roof access but are also encouraged to buy access cards wholesale and sell them at their front desks or sell them on commission. Yodel will be accessible in guest rooms, so there is a built in benefit to the hotels.

One hotel, The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, which accounts for about 60 percent of the tourist accommodation in Upper Village, already had its own Wi-Fi initiative planned -- an unexpected wrinkle. Rae worked out a deal with the Fairmont chain under which customers of each service will be able to roam to the others' network -- although he admits it's not entirely clear yet how this will be done.

Existing Internet cafés were another stakeholder group that the project team was very careful not to alienate. "The last thing we wanted was a headline that read, 'Municipality Screws Local Entrepreneurs,'" Rae says.

After many meetings, they agreed the two types of service could co-exist. The Internet cafés would concentrate on their main target market -- visitors and residents without computers or PDAs looking for short-term access. Yodel would focus on visitors who come with computers and want more comprehensive access. In the end, the Internet cafés even agreed to sell yodel access cards.

The town's uncharacteristic entrepreneurial drive won't stop at getting the yodel service up and running in Whistler. Rae has already been peddling the yodel concept and brand to other British Columbia ski resorts.

"We've had a unanimously positive response," he says. "These are not big plays -- they're smaller towns or might even be privately owned mountains and chair lift operations, but they all have their own accommodation. Even if we get five or 10 percent of that action it will be something."

He's also talking to colleges and universities.

All of this doesn't mean Whistler will be in the Wi-Fi business -- or any business -- forever, though. Once the town and V-Link get yodel up and running and generating a stable revenue stream, they may decide to spin it off or sell it "for a one-time revenue windfall for the community."

"The key thing," Rae says, "is to generate incremental revenue -- one way or the other."

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