Promise of free Wi-Fi in Vancouver not new

Free Wi-Fi not free, reports conclude

Free Wi-Fi for all of Vancouver.

That was a promise the NPA’s newly minted mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe made Monday as he rolled out some of the initiatives his party will introduce, if elected in November.

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Though details on such a plan will be revealed in the coming months, LaPointe said free Wi-Fi would first be set up in neighbourhoods “that can least afford and most need it” before going city-wide and into the business district.

The idea is not new.

Former NPA mayoral candidate Peter Ladner, who served as a councillor from 2002 to 2008, pushed for free Wi-Fi in 2006 when he was at city hall, but it never got off the ground.

Ladner wanted the city to find a private partner to build and manage a municipal Wi-Fi network. He didn’t want the city to spend money on the project, which was estimated to cost $1.75 million to build and about $300,000 per year to operate.

“We couldn’t find anybody,” Ladner recalled Wednesday. “And then on the other hand, there were more and more places that were providing Wi-Fi at no cost. All the coffee shops have it, the community centres have it, it’s all over UBC and different hotels have it in their lobbies.”

Added Ladner: “So I just figured times had changed and there was now enough availability in other ways that it wasn’t worth pursuing.”

A staff report that went before the NPA-dominated council in May 2008 recommended stopping further work on searching for a partner because of the costs and business risks highlighted by responses from potential suppliers.

All of the business models proposed by suppliers required financial investment from the city to build and operate a network. The suppliers also said the city and its partners would need a consistent revenue stream for the project to work.

Ladner, however, still thinks setting up free Wi-Fi in the city is doable because of how technology has changed since council put the project on hold.

“Just how it would work, I don’t know,” said Ladner, although he added there might be opportunities to “piggy-back” on other Wi-Fi systems that exist in the city.

Free Wi-Fi already exists at the city’s 22 library branches, some community centres and at city hall. The city is looking to expand the service and is experimenting with Wi-Fi technology at select locations, including the Granville Mall.

The experiments, or pilot projects, are a result of the Vision Vancouver-led administration approving in April 2013 a “digital strategy” for the city that involves various initiatives, including Wi-Fi expansion.

The demand for free Wi-Fi is evident, with wireless sessions at library branches increasing from close to 178,000 in 2009 to more than 590,000 in 2012, according to a report to council in April 2013.

But that same report concluded what the report to council in 2008 concluded: that free Wi-Fi is not free Wi-Fi because it requires city and private money.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer said the long-term goal is to have Wi-Fi set up across the city but the priority is getting all residents access to the Internet.

“If you’re going to prioritize, it should definitely be on the digital access side, not on the side of improving or making free a service that quite a few people already have good access to,” said Reimer of the many Vancouverites who have smartphones. “There’re people who free Wi-Fi access means nothing to because they don’t have the technology to access it.”

Only 54 per cent of households with incomes of $30,000 or less have home Internet access compared to 97 per cent of households with incomes of more than $87,000, according to Statistics Canada.

The city’s 22 library branches have more than 400 computers with Internet connectivity. In 2012, more than 90,000 people logged in to use the libraries’ computers, according to city data.

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