Toronto Telco Finalizing Metro Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

May 08, 2006

A deal with Siemens and BelAir will get a downtown Toronto hotzone off the ground in two months, with more to come in the next few years.

Only a couple of months after announcing its plans to blanket the city of Toronto with Wi-Fi, the local Toronto Hydro Telecom  (THT, a subsidiary of Toronto Hydro Corp., in turn owned by the city) has settled on partners to install and run the network.

Siemens Canada Limited will be the integrator and equipment supplier; the equipment installed will be mesh nodes from BelAir Networks, re-branded as Siemens Mesh@vantage MR products.

This deal is probably the biggest yet for BelAir, which is in competition with other startup companies like Tropos Networks (Philadelphia, San Francisco) and Strix Systems (covering most of the Wi-Fi cities in Arizona), as well as many other well-established players like Motorola and Nortel.

The back-end of the network will be run using Siemens' Wireless Integration@vantage wireless integration platform (based on the software from Garderos, now owned by Siemens). That includes all billing, accounting and user authentication to the network.

Despite THT's parentage back to the city, some terms and conditions are still under negotiation, though one thing that's not at issue is use of street lights: the Toronto Hydro Corp. utility company owns most of them through another subsidiary, Toronto Hydro Street Lighting.

Maybe because of that parentage, the plan is unsurprisingly under fire from incumbent telecommunications companies like Rogers Communications and Telus. The companies are quoted from a March story in the National Post as wondering why Toronto Hydro would want to get into the business, which is "expensive to operate and maintain." Like most such networks announced these days, THT will bear the brunt of the cost of deployment — no taxpayer money is going to be spent.

Dino Farinaccia, Director of Marketing and Communications at THT, says that his company's stealthy background — it handles disaster recovery for some Fortune 500 companies, and doesn't talk about it for obvious reasons — may have contributed to the competition thinking THT wasn't up to the job. However, THT owns over 450 kilometers of fiber optic lines in the area, servicing over 400 enterprise office buildings, springing out of the years Toronto Hydro laid the fiber throughout its power grid. Thus spin-off THT is no stranger to running a network.

The first zone of the network will cover 10 square kilometers in downtown Toronto by June 30th (a move up from the previously-announced December 31st date). The company's press release mentions a download rate of 54Mbps, though that's probably a reference to the data rate of 802.11g to be used in the network, and not a reflection of the true download throughput. 

No word on cost for end-user access yet, but Farinaccia says the company is toying with providing an hourly, daily and monthly rate. The first six months of any individual use will be free.

"Nothing is set in stone," he says. When asked if THT and the city would be working to provide services for low-income families (a prerequisite in the networks that are going into cities like Philadelphia), he says, "If we can help them out, we'll do what we can."

Farinaccia believes it will take years for the THT/Siemens Wi-Fi network to expand to a citywide presence, though he expects that if they find "niche areas" where consumers and businesses request the service, it will expand there through sheer market demand.

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