Getting with the 21st Century: Toronto Considers the Wireless Canada Program
As the web and web-based applications continue to garner greater attention in our lives, the city is looking at ways to make broadband access more universal.
A current proposal making its way through city hall is offering to place one thousand internet-ready, no-cost computers in public venues across the city. Better yet, as part of the plan, the city will actually generate a profit. Take a deep breath.
It's called the Wireless Canada Program. It was first brought to the city council's attention last year, and is being pushed by the Toronto Office of Partnerships. It goes something like this: a private firm in Toronto (the Oxford Group) is offering to set-up and maintain (at no cost to the city) 1,000 internet-ready computers in venues across Toronto. The initiative will be financed by corporate sponsorships, as they'll be able to place their logos on the computers' screen savers.
After the proposal was introduced, both the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) and the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division (PF&R) "deemed the initiative to have merit and expressed interest in having the computers placed in community centres and community housing sites." The city estimates the program would generate more than $500,000 in revenue over the initial 5-year term. The income will go the TCHC and PF&R, with the final allocation depending on the actual placement of the computers.
When I first heard of the proposal, it grabbed my attention. I am a major advocate of bringing the web to as many citizens as possible. According to the OECD, Canada currently ranks 10th in broadband penetration, with about 27 subscribers for every 100 people. At a quick glance, the proposal seemed like a great idea - allowing more people across the city to have access to both the economic and cultural benefits that come along with the web.
But I don't think this plan is right one for the city. The evolution of the web has been, first to laptops and netbooks, and more recently to smartphone devices like Apple's iPhone. This proposal doesn't take these devices into consideration. By only allowing people access to the internet through conventional PC portals, it carries the distinct possibility of becoming obsolete before it's even implemented.
The city should start looking towards more innovative approaches to bringing the web to a greater number of people. Toronto Hydro's move to bring free wireless (for six months at least) to the downtown core was a good start. Maybe the city should start looking at creating an internet-based service similar to other utilities, like water and electricity. Surely, as more people across the city sign on, the subscription fees will continue to drop. Yet, something tells me Rogers and Bell wouldn't back this plan up...
The city could also look to fund non-profit groups like Wireless Toronto that already offer free Wi-Fi spots across the city. Or, in support of those free-market enthusiasts, it could keep the status quo and let the private industry fight it out for our Internet dollars. But introducing a program that places PCs in venues across the city and depends on ad dollars to stay afloat (has the city been following the collapsing media industry) doesn't make much sense to me.
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