Why we need free Wi-Fi in our cities

The National Post occasionally publishes an “everything you need to know about a complicated issue” feature, and last month I read about free public Wi-Fi but I couldn’t help thinking that there’s nothing complicated about it. The article examines Councillor Josh Matlow’s push to install free public Wi-Fi in public spaces around Toronto. The article discusses several reputable cities that have experimented with free Wi-Fi including New York, Brisbane, Tel Aviv, Edmonton and Fredericton. Mayor Brad Woodside of Fredericton, a pioneer in providing free public basic Wi-Fi may have said it best:

“We don’t charge you to walk on our sidewalks. Why would we charge you for broadband?”- Mayor Brad Woodside, Fredericton

City wifi photo

A survey of more than 10,000 Internet users in over 20 countries by the Internet Society found that 83% of respondents agreed with the statement that “access to the Internet should be considered a basic human right.” The findings also suggested that access to the Internet should not be unreasonably restricted and that governments have a responsibility to ensure that Internet access is widely-available. In Canada, we already enjoy free Wi-Fi at Tim Horton’s, Starbucks and many other retail and food outlets across the country. And with Internet access being recognized as a right by the laws of several countries, what would make this a complicated issue?

Well, it’s cost! Why would a city use its scarce public resources to provide a service that service providers, Tim Horton’s and Starbucks can provide? Where the so-called complexity kicks in is when you view this investment as just providing Internet access. Detractors will suggest that cities will pay for expensive infrastructure that will simply allow teenagers to browse adult sites, play games, watch movies and update their Facebook status. I imagine it’s this narrow perspective that has Councillor Matlow and his peers under considerable scrutiny.

I think we’ve got to expand the scope and realize the business opportunities. Let’s examine how free city Wi-Fi gives citizens, businesses and the government itself an opportunity to influence the productivity and innovation trajectory of our country on a national level. Through a municipal lens, the technology provides incremental opportunities to drive economic development, cost reductions, job creation and heightened collaboration. Free City Wi-Fi may then not be seen as a cost, but as an economic development engine, innovation stimulus and revenue generator.

Imagine a municipality equipped with a Wi-Fi network that addresses multiple services requirements and can be leveraged by all constituents for accessing data and value-added services.  A unified, foundational network supporting:

Infrastructure services that benefit transportation, utilities, public safety, and environmental optimization.  All the connected nodes on the Wi-Fi network work in unison to deliver greater value at reduced operational expense and resources. Cars talk to street lights, and smart-parking maximizes city revenues while reducing unnecessary driving and congestion.

Business services can be made available to the local commerce. The Wi-Fi network becomes an extension to their reach to their customers and consumers. Locally configured applications draw shoppers to retailers, and customer experiences don’t begin or end at the door of a retail location.

City services provide data, real-time analytics and insight to public service providers and planners. The mining of city data will become increasingly integral for cities to operate more competitively and efficiently.

Citizen services allow for citizens to participate in the safety and security of a municipality (to record broken lights and pot holes) and provides a channel for virtual conversations with city officials and municipal leaders, as well as the broader community. This will redefine how smart-municipalities operate and ultimately set them apart from their analog counterparts.

Now, add to this the integration of “small cells” which give services providers that are struggling to build and grow cellular networks capable of handling increasing numbers of connected devices an opportunity to offload cellular traffic. A collaborative effort between cities, service providers and municipal constituents will help drive productivity and innovation to the community and country at large.

In conclusion: can free Wi-Fi transform a community? Yes! Is it truly a complex issue, no! It’s time to pursue incremental value today for a smarter and connected Canada.

About Rick Huijbregts

Rick Huijbregts is Vice President of Industry Transformation where he is responsible for Cisco Canada’s IoE strategy and industry business development. The members of his team are industry subject matter experts and each engage in the transformation of their respective industries (healthcare, oil and gas, financial services, education, real estate, and industrial sector). Huijbregts is also General Manager for Cisco Canada’s Smart + Connected Communities practice, including Smart + Connected Real Estate. Huijbregts holds construction and architecture degrees from Tilburg Polytechnic University and Delft University in the Netherlands, and a doctorate from Harvard University. Huijbregts is currently a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Design Executive Education where he teaches classes on Smart Buildings and Smart Cities. He also serves on several boards of Canadian academic institutions and not-for-profits. Rick Huijbregts est vice-président de la transformation sectorielle dont les responsabilités comptent la stratégie de l’internet multidimensionnel et le développement commercial du secteur industriel de Cisco Canada. Les membres de son équipe sont tous des experts dans différents domaines et œuvrent à la transformation de leurs secteurs d’activité respectifs (santé, énergie, services financiers, enseignement, immobilier et industrie). Huijbregts est également directeur général du segment des communautés intelligentes et connectées, dont le volet immotique des immeubles intelligents et connectés de Cisco Canada. M. Huijbregts est titulaire de diplômes en construction et architecture de l’université Tilburg Polytechnic et de l’université Delft aux Pays-Bas ainsi que d’un doctorat de l’université Harvard. Il est actuellement professeur de Harvard à la faculté d’études supérieures pour les cadres en aménagement urbain où il donne des cours sur la gestion intelligente des immeubles et des villes. Il siège également à plusieurs conseils d’administration d’universités et d’organismes à but non lucratif.
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