HRM to move forward with free, public Wi-Fi

via The Chronicle Herald

Halifax regional council narrowly voted to move ahead with the staff’s recommended public Wi-Fi plan, with many councillors raising concerns it was too much money for not enough real estate.

A publicly supported, privately owned model of Wi-Fi will soon be available for six areas across HRM’s urban core.

This includes both the Halifax and Dartmouth waterfronts, Grand Parade, Halifax Central Library, Halifax North Memorial Library and the Alderney Public Library.

Council — with a vote of nine for and eight against — agreed to award Bell Aliant with a five-year, $2.6 million contract on Tuesday.

This process started a few years back when council endorsed the public realm improvement project list. At the time, council wanted to achieve a Wi-Fi service that would be free for public use and delivered at a minimal cost to the municipality.

But many councillors expressed their disappointment with the outcome.

“The coverage is arguably a quarter of what it could be,” councillor Waye Mason said, addressing council.

Mason says the future is having a seamless, single point entrance Wi-Fi, one that connects along streets like Spring Garden Rd., Barrington St. and Agricola St.

“This is getting us to where we want to be. It’s the start of where we want to go,” he said, later voting for the motion.

In a presentation, staff said the six identified areas were chosen because of they are “high traffic areas.”

But these hot spots will not be connected.

For example, you won’t be able to stay on the Wi-Fi network as you walk up from the waterfront to Grand Parade.

However, users will automatically be signed back on when they arrive at another hot spot, instead of being asked to log in multiple times.

Staff also said there is room to expand the Wi-Fi service past these hot spots — but this is where a lot of the uncertainty comes in.

Let’s say HRM wants to expand the service into a nearby park or bus terminal. Bell Aliant would first need to do a feasibility study.

“We’ve agreed in consultation with Bell that each proposed site would need an assessment to understand the scope and potential financial implications of adding a site,” said chief financial officer Amanda Whitewood.

She said the telecom service needs to ensure there is a sufficient power supply and then assess the costs.

Business improvement associations, and even businesses themselves, can latch onto this public service as well. But they would need to call Bell and set it up themselves, and also foot the bill.

“We wouldn’t be overseeing any contract with a third party. They would work with Bell directly,” Whitewood clarified.

Staff said the Argyle Business Commission is very interested in joining the service, as is the Waterfront Development Corporation. But as of right now, no one has signed on to parter with the municipality.

The corporation set up their own Wi-Fi back in 2008. When speaking about their service, Whitewood called it a “very spotty, unreliable” connection.

“They have been waiting for us to set ours up and wanted to talk about how to partner with us once we have that in place,” she said.

Councillor Sam Austin was concerned with the number of “mights” in the staff’s presentation. “We might be able to expand this. We might get advertising revenue. We might have partners,” he said.

He says he’s disappointed that the Waterfront Development Corporation hasn’t already stepped forward.

Councillor David Hendsbee pointed out that public Wi-Fi was listed as an aspiration 17 years ago.

Now, he sees this proposal as nothing more than a “redundancy of what is out there in the public sector.”

Councillor Lisa Blackburn agreed that the proposal wasn’t ideal, but pointed to a critical digital divide that this public service would fill for the senior and homeless population.

“I mean, you can’t apply for a job now without . . . having access to the Internet. It’s no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” she said to council.

Bell would be delivering the service and collecting any data associated with the Wi-Fi. That includes monitoring where people are using the service and how many people are using it at once.

HRM would then receive monthly reports on how the service is accessed.

The municipality will also have full design control over the network’s homepage.

Staff noted that a consultant looked at how cities like Ottawa, London, Mississauga, Stratford and Calgary implemented their public Wi-Fi networks.

Some councillors noted that their systems were set up more effectively then the proposed one in front of HRM council.

But Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dubé said this proposal is an important step forward.

“If we don’t go ahead with this today, we’re likely three or four years away,” he said.

“It’s a watershed moment for HRM as a smart city.”

Staff said they are hoping to have the service online by May or June.

Original publish date: Feb. 7, 2017

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