Another attempt at Toronto muni wifi?

At today’s Government Management Committee meeting, a report will be received updating the committee on three public policy initiatives:

  1. Setting up a “Meraki-style” mesh network in one of the priority neighbourhoods.
  2. Allowing the Oxford Group to install free-to-use, sponsored public Internet terminals in one of the priority neighbourhoods.
  3. Setting up free-to-use public wifi at City Hall and in publicly-accessible areas in other city buildings.

The report is here; it’s quite good, actually:

In addition, the committee invited (through an RFI) “major leaders in the Wireless marketplace” to “present an overview of their Wireless strategic directions and plans.” Each will have 15-20 minutes to present. There’s a bit of info on this here:

Item 26.21 is scheduled for 1:30pm, and the meeting is in Committee Room 1; I hope to be there.

As I mentioned, I think the Staff Report is pretty good — it’s the first City document I’ve seen that shows a realistic approach to public wifi. Some highlights & thoughts:

  • It mentions the “Dark Fibre License Agreement” negotiated between the City and Toronto Hydro Telecom, as facilitating “the provision for free or low cost internet access to the citizens of Toronto residing within the City’s identified Priority Neighbourhoods and Community Centres.” Presumably the agreement itself is private; it wasn’t attached to any of the documents I found.
  • It recommends that two pilot projects be undertaken: one to work with TCHC to set up a pilot Meraki-style network; the second to do a pilot installation of the Oxford Group’s “Wired Canada Program”. The Moss Park Complex (295 Shuter Ave.) has been recommended as the site for both of these projects; one of the buildings is recommended to be set up with wifi, on a 1-year pilot. The scope for the Oxford pilot is TBD, but a 6-month pilot was suggested.
  • Based on squinting at the network map on the Cogeco Data site, it doesn’t appear that the Cogeco fiber goes to Moss Park. The closest it gets is Richmond and Ontario.
  • I’ve heard separately that the provisions of the Dark Fibre License Agreement prohibit the City from connecting that infrastructure to the Internet — meaning that it *can’t* be used for providing free or cheap Internet access to residents in priority neighbourhoods, or anyone else. (This could be totally wrong — but since the agreement doesn’t appear to be available, I’m not able to confirm.)
  • Considering that the City just signed a 10-year $39-million deal with Cogeco Data Services for fibre connectivity for the City, I’m left wondering what it is that the Dark Fibre Agreement *does* allow?: ITCanada: City of Toronto inks wide-area network contract
  • It explains Meraki’s model for their “Free The Net” network in San Francisco, mentions that its coverage provides access to 150,000 residents, that they don’t mount any of their gear on City assets, but that they encourage the City — and everyone else — to install repeaters. Residents who can see the signal but who want a stronger signal can request a free repeater from Meraki, and that these repeaters are generally installed by volunteers/enthusiasts in windows and on roofs. Meraki pays for the bandwidth (people don’t share their own personal ‘net connections), and they make clear that they have no intent of launching similar projects (which is to say, at their expense) in other cities.
  • It demonstrates that they recognize that user support is the big wildcard that will significantly affect the network’s cost and success. They’d like to set up a “mentoring or similar grassroots initiative” for support, but that they’re currently looking at contracting phone support, which is how the Toronto Public Library provides tech support.
  • It presents the options for providing free public wifi in City buildings: piggybacking on their existing private/secure wifi infrastructure (list of locations), or creating an entirely separate network. It suggests that it makes sense to provide “Minimal Best Effort” support on the public network; that there’s no dedicated staff support. It also suggests that the use of the public network be restricted to “general browsing”, disallowing “video streaming and other commercial use”, but pointing out that the content filtering should be “less restrictive”.

4 thoughts on “Another attempt at Toronto muni wifi?

  1. I didn’t say in the post if I think any of this is a good idea or not. I don’t know yet. The devil’s in the details.

  2. Umm I might inquire about how Meraki got started?

    I am more interested in community building and I wonder if we can develop the community based volunteer support system or does it become a for profit business? If there is community participation, who does the training and administration and who controls the system as a whole? In other words who controls the content and information?

    Meraki is a San Francisco based private start-up company that was born out of a research project initiated by Sanjit Biswas and fellow Harvard PhD students. Meraki’s Wi-Fi networking technology drastically reduces the cost of deploying reliable Wi-Fi networks. The start-up has successfully implemented its networks in a variety of situations already, both residential and educational. As part of a multi-year agreement, One Economy will deploy Meraki solutions to low-income communities in every location it provides services to starting with major U.S. cities including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and eventually throughout the globe.
    Looks like a grass roots or “Community” thing?

  3. You’re right, Daryl — support is an important issue to figure out. The ‘grassroots’ approach sounds great, but I worry that it doesn’t scale well. At the very least, its efficiency goes down as the scale goes up. I don’t have any experience with providing tech training or support at a large scale, but I’m sure there are lots of others who have…?

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