Installing the E-Zone - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

May 14, 2004

So-called "utelcos" like e-Novations -- telecom service providers set up by municipal and regional utility companies -- have become much more common since 1999, but Fredericton's was one of the first in Canada.

The e-Novations fiber backbone and Canopy networks were vital to Fred-eZone. Without them the Wi-Fi project would have been much more expensive. In a few cases, the access points are connected directly to the fiber net. In most, they're backhauled using the Canopy network.

The service is completely open and free for now and delivers data speeds of from 2 to 8 Mbps. The network doesn't even authenticate users, although that will change soon. Users will have to register, giving their name and e-mail address to get a free account.

In the meantime, the e-Novations back-office systems do record MAC addresses of all users who log on -- so the company can track illegal or unethical use of the network and block access to repeat offenders. "If someone decides they're going to spam the world from our Wi-Fi network," Gallant says, "we're going to turn you off."

While it doesn't have exact statistics, the network is already being well-used. Gallant estimates that about 80 users on average log on each day. The most ever logged on simultaneously was 160. Since much of the coverage area is outdoors, he expects usage to pick up with the arrival of warmer weather.

Because Wi-Fi coverage extends inside some business offices and residences, the Fred-eZone may in some cases siphon potential e-Novations small business and SOHO customers, Fitzgerald concedes.

"But it's our view that it's only pretty unsophisticated users who can depend on Wi-Fi for their main connection out to the pipe," he says. "If they happen to have an office by a window on the business corridor and it works and they want to do that [use Fred-eZone for their main Internet access], we say, 'Go ahead.' But we think it will be a small percentage."

Coffee shops and stores in some malls will definitely be covered and that is part of the plan. In the beginning e-Novations called on such businesses to discuss coverage. Now the business owners call e-Novations, Gallant says.

There were no commercial Wi-Fi hotspot service providers in Fredericton when the city launched Fred-eZone, Fitzgerald says -- and not surprisingly none have emerged since. Nor has anyone complained that the city is robbing entrepreneurs of business opportunities by offering the service for free.

One entrepreneur in a neighboring community has contacted e-Novations about linking his proposed for-fee service with the Fred-eZone, and computer retailers noticed an upswing in sales of Wi-Fi cards when the service launched in November, for which they were naturally grateful.

Aliant meanwhile recently launched a Wi-Fi pilot with free hotspot service in four Atlantic region cities, including Moncton in New Brunswick. The service will only be free until the end of the trial, though.

The relationship between commercial and free municipally-run Wi-Fi hotspot services is going to be one of the more interesting factors in the evolving hotspot industry.

Look for more municipalities to follow the lead of Fredericton, Cleveland and others that have gone this route. Fitzgerald says Fredericton has already had enquiries from other North American cities, including the U.S. and Canadian capital regions.

"I think there are visionary people on many city staffs that would like to do this," Fitzgerald says. It won't be easy, though, he cautions.

As Gallant points out, cities that don't already have the infrastructure that Fredericton had in place and don't find a partner/sponsor like Cisco will have to commit a lot more money to establish a similar free Wi-Fi hotzone.

Not to mention time. Team Fredericton did not succeed in its first attempt to sell the city council on the idea. It had to go back a second time. "When you ask a municipality to step outside the box like we did and make a commitment to this as more than a one-shot thing, it's a big decision for them to make. We were fortunate to have a council that got it."

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