Monday, January 21, 2008

Surf’s up! Popular, wireless and free in New Brunswick

They’re taking the accolades in stride in Fredericton these days, as the New Brunswick capital receives honours for its comprehensive free Wi-Fi service that covers the downtown area and other key sections of the city.

Every year the Intelligent Community of the Year Award honours cities that provide their citizens with access to broadband Internet. This year Fredericton has made the short list of seven world communities thanks to its Fred-eZone. A city designed and financed zone of free Internet access, a dedicated use of infrastructure that lets users log on from almost anywhere in the city' downtown through its wireless technology.

In fact, Fredericton’s approach to wireless technology and providing services to its citizens is quite a bit outside the box of common thinking for most Canadian municipalities.

The nominators at the Intelligent Communities Forum outlined the qualities for Fredericton in a press release last week, which highlights how far the New Brunswick city has come in a short period of time:

Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. This community of 50,000 was a broadband "have not" until the City Council led an effort to aggregate public-sector, university and business demand and created e-Novations, its own fiber carrier, then launched the Fred-eZone wireless network offering free connectivity across the city. Today, Fredericton contains 70% of the province's knowledge-based businesses and is using ICT to substantially reduce its carbon footprint.

70 per cent of Fredericton households and 85 to 90 per cent of its businesses are reported to be connected to broadband, an achievement that has the American based think tank that sponsors the awards impressed with the forward thinking of the Fredericton’s municipal government.
The Fred-e zone is described by the city as providing integrated traditional and wireless technologies to create, free, community-wide Wi-Fi network providing residents, visitors and businesses with mobile broadband access from virtually anywhere within the city.

Like streetlights and sidewalks, Fred-eZone is municipal infrastructure. Today, coverage extends throughout the downtown business district, City parks, local arenas, business hotels, Kings Place Mall, and the Fredericton Mall. With plans for Fred-eZone expansion in place, the future will see coverage extended to include all of the City's business corridors and public spaces. Wi-Fi is the next big thing in networking. It is now available throughout Fredericton for you to use - free of charge.

Much like Prince Rupert did in the past, the city of Fredericton laid a fiber optic backbone for the city in 1999, they created a civic owned company called e-Novations, from that humble start a comprehensive approach to Wi-Fi development has come about, leading up to the current Fred-e zone, which has provided residents, business owners, visitors and would be investors with a cutting edge system of communication that makes it the rival of many communities across North American.

Considering all the talk at the time about our fibre optic link and the investment that then City Tel made in it’s city wide loop, one wonders if any thought has been given to a similar set up in Prince Rupert. At one time that fibre optic link was going to lead to great things for the city, there was talk of calling centres and other forms of investment that would flow from it, but so far there hasn’t been much to bring forward for the residents and taxpayers, who of course also double as the shareholders of the company.

As the city not only owns the main Internet access point in the city, but two systems of communication delivery in town through phone and cable, one would imagine that the possibilities should be endless for a comprehensive system for the city. Setting up a free access Wi-Fi zone in the city would certainly be a selling point to industry and would be beneficial for small business and residential users as well.

When it comes to infrastructure it all depends on how you approach it and what you consider necessary. Fredericton has looked at their service as an investment in the community, one that is just as important as the sewers, roads and more traditional aspects of city delivered services.

They’re approach is a refreshing use of assets that shows a vision for the future for the east coast city, one which not only takes into account the requirements for the future, but provides a benefit for its residents. Perhaps if CityWest wishes to remain relevant in the community and the marketplace it might be an approach that they should investigate fully and quickly for this west coast city as well.

Wi-Fi access is the kind of project that they may have wished to invest in before they decided to get into the cablevision market and expanded their horizons to the east. Maybe this is the future direction that City West has planned for its future, but so far there hasn't been much of a discussion locally about where we are going and how we're going to get to that point.

Offering up the prospect of this kind of service locally would not have been near as controversial as some of the recent business transactions at CityWest, and would have brought them an awful lot of goodwill from the community, not to mention showing that they have their eye on the future in a positive and forward thinking way...

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