The next time you're in the downtown core, look at the tops of the hydro poles lining the streets. Perched on some are radio access points that look like shrunken wine barrels, poised to beam signals all over the city.
A few weeks ago, Toronto Hydro Telecom, the newly created branch of Toronto Hydro, flipped the switch on its wireless fidelity grid in this area. The WiFi network, called One Zone, is free until March 2007 and is currently bounded by Bloor to the north, Front to the south, Jarvis to the east and Spadina to the west.
Wanting to try out the new service, I truck my laptop down Queen, find an empty steel chair and get ready to surf. The Hydro One Zone page pops up immediately and asks for my cellphone number to register for an account. I don't have a cellphone right now, so I find a phone booth and call the help line.
I ask a technician at 416-599-DATA what's going on. "You cannot get on the network," he says.
"Really? Why can't I get on without a cellphone?" I ask.
"It's for security purposes, so they know who's on the network." A pause. "You could borrow a friend's phone," he suggests.
"Wouldn't that defeat the purpose of the security measures?" I ask.
"Well, at least they'd know who your friends were," he counters.
According to Dave Dobbin, president of Toronto Hydro Telecom, concerns raised by the Toronto police led to the cellphone number requirement.
"They asked us to do it," he says. "Their single biggest concern is security. People could surf anonymously, which would provide a haven for illegal activity."
After signing a friend up for potential police scrutiny, I have a pretty consistent connection. When I try downloading a large video file, though, the network labours a little.
"We don't have as much peer-to-peer activity as we thought we would," Dobbin says. Instead, the traffic has been mostly low-bandwidth stuff like e-mail and tourists checking MapQuest to find out where they are.
The network, at 6 square kilometres, is currently the largest in Canada. According to Dobbin, 20,000 passwords have been given out, and an average of 260 people are on the network at any given time. "And that's in the fall, when the weather's getting colder," he says. "This is way better than we expected, and it's all without advertising."
The big question will be whether Hydro Telecom can keep up this pace of growth when the network starts to charge. The pricing structure that kicks in in March will be $29 a month, $10 a day or $5 a hour. I ask Dobbin how he thinks Hydro's service compares with the free service provided by local upstart Wireless Toronto.
"If people have a chance to use a free network, they will," he says, but he's quick to point out that Hydro's is more robust than the community group's. Dobbin also defends Hydro's decision to charge users for the service. "Toronto Hydro is the only city WiFi provider that makes money for the city," Dobbin says.
He sees this as a great opportunity for cash-strapped Toronto to raise some money.
Edward Nixon of Wireless Toronto notes that, "One Zone and Wireless Toronto are in different businesses. WT exists to provide free-to-end-user service in indoor and outdoor publicly accessible spaces, with the low-cost service sponsored by the site host or an interested third party. One Zone is in the business of selling a competitively priced WiFi service to single end users."
It's nice to see people sitting in public places on Queen surfing with their laptops, half working, half embroiled in the public life of the city.
Only time will tell whether Hydro can provide this service in a way that satisfies its users.