Make that a double latté with Internet topping1

“Have you used the Internet?” asks Michael Pereira. Of course I’ve used the Internet, but the question is not actually as odd as it seems. Pereira is a volunteer with Wireless Toronto, a non-profit group dedicated to bringing free wireless Internet access to the city. We’re sitting in the café at 401 Richmond, an arts and community centre in downtown Toronto. This café is the group’s most recent “hotspot,” and Pereira wants to know if I’ve tried out the free wireless yet.

I turn on my laptop and click on my web browser. The Wireless Toronto sign-in page pops up, instead of my usual homepage. I create a username and password, fill in my email address and that’s it. I’m online, and all it cost was a $1.25 cup of tea.

In Toronto, several cafés and restaurants offer wireless Internet access – for a price. Just across the street from 401 Richmond, at the Second Cup on the corner of Richmond and Spadina, I can check my email for $9 an hour. Or I can pop into Starbucks on the other side of the street, where it’s only $7.50 an hour.

Wireless Toronto has set up 10 free “hotspots” across the city since Gabe Sawhney founded it in April. The mission of this fledging group is to provide free Internet access to build and strengthen communities. It’s a great idea, but whether it will become a viable activist tool – or merely Internet access for the thrifty – is open to question.

But no one can question the price. “The cost of public access to the Internet doesn’t have to be so high,” says Hanna Cho, who works with Wireless Toronto. According to Statistics Canada, almost 57 per cent of Canadian homes had Internet access as of 2003. While that figure has certainly grown in the last two years, Internet access still tends to be limited to only those Canadians who can afford it. There are still areas in the country that do not have Internet access readily available. Today, a computer without an Internet connection is not much more useful than an obsolete typewriter.

This is where community wireless networks come in. A single existing Internet connection can be used to provide access to several computers. Setting up these networks that provide free access to many, for a relatively low cost to the provider, raises awareness about the barriers to access and how they can be overcome.

Wireless Toronto’s communication infrastructures, known as community wireless networks, have been evolving since 1998, when WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) technology became available. Over the past five years, Seattle, New York and Austin have established highly successful community wireless networks.

In Canada, Montreal’s île Sans Fil (Wireless Island) now has more than 70 hotspots and 11,500 users across the city. Three years ago, Michael Lenczner and some friends founded the group as a way to get computer geeks involved in local community activism. They copied groups in the U.S., but wrote their own open source software, WifiDog, which was significantly cheaper than licensing pre-existing software. They set up a hotspot and computer at Café L’Utopik and invited fellow programmers to test their software. From there, it grew into île Sans Fil. Wireless Toronto was modeled on île Sans Fil, and uses the same Canadian software.

Access to Wireless Toronto’s hotspots is free because venue owners pay for the service. Each hotspot runs off the venue’s existing high-speed Internet connection. The owner pays for a $79 router, as well as an annual $50 membership fee. Volunteers with the group take care of installing the wireless network.

In exchange for the free access, owners hope customers will stick around to surf longer and perhaps buy more coffee and food. Generally, they’ve been open to paying the set-up charge because it’s not that expensive and it will help to lure in customers. At Lettieri, a café on Front Street and a Wireless Toronto hotspot, owners say they had wireless access installed as a service to customers who complained about the price of access at other cafés.

Of course, corporations have realized the potential of capitalizing on wireless access in public spaces. Bell and Rogers have teamed up with Inukshuk Internet to build a national wireless broadband network. The network will cover two-thirds of the Canadian population through 40 metropolitan area networks by 2008, says David Robinson, vice-president of business implementation at Rogers. The companies will be selling wireless access to current customers who live within the network areas. While the cost has not yet been made public, Robinson says the service will cost users an additional fee to what they pay for their Internet connection at home. Bell also has a contract to build a pilot hotspot in Nathan Philips Square.

Wireless Toronto is way ahead of Bell, as they have 10 virtual public squares up and running. Hotspots are location-based and limited, so they can be designed to cater to the local community. Rein Petersen, a Wireless Toronto volunteer, says he hopes that by setting up free WiFi hotspots across cities, grassroots organizations like his will make it difficult for companies to profit from selling the same access.

Creating community is an important goal for Wireless Toronto, as it was for île Sans Fil. “We wanted to use wireless to augment and support third places in Montreal,” said Lenczner, adding that the first place is where you live, the second is where you work and the third is where you gather. Now it’s up to the users to engage through the community networks.

But then, it seems contradictory to use an isolating technology to bring people together. When you turn on your laptop, it automatically creates a bubble around you. There is even a term for people who sit for hours tapping away at their keyboards, headphones plugged into the laptop, eyes glazed over, oblivious to their surroundings: WiFi Zombies.

Proponents of community wireless networks argue, however, that this is not necessarily what happens. “Every time I pull out my laptop, someone will come over and ask what I’m working on,” says Pereira. “I’ll have a conversation that I wouldn’t have otherwise. For me, it’s a way to get people communicating.”

Customers at the St. Lawrence Market certainly wouldn’t expect to be able to access the Internet while they roam through the aisles lined with butchers, fishmongers and bakeries. In October, Wireless Toronto launched its highest-profile hotspot here. Now, customers and tenants at the market, as well as residents in the community, can access the Internet both inside the market’s buildings and in the surrounding outdoor spaces.

If you log on at the St. Lawrence Market, you’re directed to the community portal page. The webpage features information about the market and community links, as well as event listings and photos of the market. Every hotspot has its own personalized portal page, with information about the venue and local community.

While two similar groups were established in Toronto in the past, and then folded, Wireless Toronto is optimistic. During the two afternoons spent at its hotspots, I didn’t see anyone using the free Internet access, but the number of users has slowly increased since the spring start-up. There are now approximately 600 Torontonians using the services. With every new hotspot, the group takes another baby step towards its goal of galvanizing communities with wireless Internet.

Wireless Toronto Hotspots

The 215 Centre for Social Innovation
215 Spadina Ave., Ste. 120
(Between Dundas and Queen)

401 Richmond Café
401 Richmond St. W.
(At Richmond and Spadina)

The Fox and Fiddle Pub
280 Bloor St. W.
(Between St. George and Huron)

Lettieri Espresso Bar + Café
79 Front St. E
(Between Jarvis and Church)

St. Lawrence Market
92 Front St. E.
(Between Jarvis and Church)

Teriyaki Experience
Airport Rd. and Hwy. 7

Teriyaki Experience
6900 Financial Dr., Mississauga
(N. of Hwy. 401 and Mississauga Rd)

Teriyaki Experience
Oakville Town Centre
200-240 North Service Rd., Oakville

Teriyaki Experience
RioCan Marketplace
2081 Steeles Ave. W.
(S.W. corner of Steeles and Dufferin)

Teriyaki Experience
861 York Mills Rd.

Also, if you’re in Quebec or British Columbia, these groups offer free wireless:

île Sans Fil, Montreal

British Columbia Wireless Network Society