A few weeks ago NOW ran a story about the absence of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) community groups in Toronto.
It turns out that there are a few nascent groups just itching to provide wireless access for the masses.
Every month at the Bishop and Belcher on Queen West, Toronto's digirati gather to discuss the newest applications of wireless technology. Members organize through www.meetup. com, and are the largest Wi-Fi meet-up group in the world.
Damien Fox, organizer of the meetup crew, is vice-president of Wireless Nomad, a new company dedicated to bringing Wi-Fi to entire neighbourhoods at a time.
"The idea behind this co-op is that it's run by the people, for the people," he tells me.
So far, the not-for-profit company (run by two people) has succeeded in hooking up Hillcrest Park near Wychwood with the help of a few volunteers. "We've started without bank loans – they don't understand co-ops. So far, we're all member-funded."
The person who hosts the wireless router pays a membership fee to cover maintenance costs, but the networking infrastructure remains firmly in the hands of the community. This wireless router provides free Wi-Fi access for everyone within range. It then gets meshed with that group's other wireless routers to create a larger free network.
"People are slowly catching on,"says Fox. "These technologies are perfect for apartment buildings and housing co-ops, because the density is higher and the cost can be shared."
Instead of waiting for the city to take the initiative, as has happened in Philadelphia or San Francisco, where plans have been announced to offer free wireless access, groups like Wireless Nomad are filling the need from the bottom up.
"The city just created a pilot project [to study] whether Wi-Fi is even a useful technology,"says Fox. At this glacial pace, a plan being floated to hook up Nathan Phillips Square could take years.
A few weeks ago, another grassroots group, Wireless Toronto, had a triumphant kickoff at the St. Lawrence Market, the site of one of their first highprofile hot spots. The group is completely volunteer-run and offers its services to businesses and publicaccess spaces.
"This was a perfect fit for the Market," says community member and volunteer Edward Nixon. "The world of technology is often seen as an isolating world, and we want to bring it to the people in public spaces."
A router jammed behind a pipe on the upper level of the Market reveals the simplicity of the technology and the grassroots nature of the group.
"People think this technology is highly complicated," says volunteer Gabe Sawhney. "It's really quite simple. And cheap." The whole Market was wired up for less than $1,000.
Currently, there are hot spots at the Centre for Social Innovation at 215 Spadina and a few Teriyaki Experience restaurants across the city. Others are in the works, such as a pilot project to get networked computers into a community housing project in Cabbagetown to aid tenants in learning new job skills and finding jobs.
Hanna Cho, a Master's student in communication and culture at York University, has been working closely with the group and monitoring its spread across the city. "We're interested in looking at alternative ways of providing access to communication," she says.
"This project is changing people's idea of this technology," she says. "It becomes more like having a library card or a necessary utility."
Cho wants to disabuse people of the notion that Wi-Fi is an upscale technology. Wireless Internet is seen on television as a perk only available to suits with the money for sweet laptops.
It's time to think of wireless as an important social resource. "We're just a bunch of happy nerds who are willing to devote our time to this," says Sawhney.
Check out www.wirelessnomad.com and www.wirelesstoronto.ca for more info.