Wi-Fi of the Frozen North

You might think that municipal Wi-Fi is only for rich, tech-savvy cities in the economic heartlands, but Iqaluit, nestled beside Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in Canada’s frozen Arctic, recently became the northernmost community in the world to launch a free citywide Wi-Fi access service.

Of course, it only took one access point to cover the city.

Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, the new northern territory Canada created in 1999, is a cold and remote place, accessible only by air and — when the ice is out, which is rare — boat. Average temperatures are below freezing eight months of the year. Originally established as a U.S. air base in the days of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line, the main industry today is government. The population of 6,000, which makes Iqaluit the largest city in the territory, is about 85 percent native Inuit. The rest are interlopers from the south.

It was one of those interlopers, David Fulgham, President of ComGuard CTS Ltd., who set up Free.Baffin.ca, the Wi-Fi-based wireless access service. ComGuard is an IT consulting and services firm with local government and corporate clients. It was already operating a DSL and Wi-Fi wireless municipal area network to serve its business clients. “[Free.Baffin] is the first service we’re providing for residential customers, and it’s riding on top of some of our existing infrastructure,” Fulgham explains.

The single access point, a Cisco unit, sits on top of an eight-floor apartment building, and with the antenna array and amplifiers Fulgham is using (but wouldn’t give details on), it covers most of the city – including about 1,000 residences and a few hotels. Only a couple of “suburbs” on the edge of town are out of range, and ComGuard plans to remedy that soon. “We’re looking at rolling out another two or three access points in the next few months,” Fulgham says.

Total cost to date: $5,500 for equipment, plus “a few thousand dollars in man hours.”

When the service launched at the beginning of April, users were only getting 96 Kilobits per second (Kbps) download speed, but that has since been bumped to 384 Kbps. “It’s still not screaming fast by any means,” Fulgham concedes, “but it’s plenty of speed for Web browsing and e-mail. And that’s 384 Kbps per client.” The backbone speed is 2.5 Mbps, dedicated to Free.Baffin. If needed, the free service can also borrow bandwidth from the business network. “Most of that corporate bandwidth is not used in the evening anyway,” he points out.

The idea is that Free.Baffin will support itself with revenues from advertising on its portal page. No ads have been sold yet, but Fulgham sounds confident they soon will be. “We have a couple [of advertisers] that are coming on board, but we haven’t completed the arrangements yet,” he says. He implies that sponsors will be found among his firm’s existing base of IT services customers.

Free.Baffin will sell banner ads, of course, but the site is offering “customized services” as well – posted articles and information updates for government agencies, for example. “We can also offer small online shops,” Fulgham says. “The sky’s the limit, really.” Well, the small population may be more of a limit, but it’s clear he’s willing to put time and effort into making the service commercially viable.

He’s also considering introducing a paid access plan which would include more services (e-mail, hosting) and offer higher speeds. “We’d always have the free plan as well, though,” Fulgham adds.

The surprising thing is the level of demand for the service. Free.Baffin launched without fanfare on April 6. A month later, it had logged in 390 users for a total of 353 hours. Fulgham did start to do some marketing around the middle of April, but most of the traffic was generated by word of mouth. He expects usage to jump in the next month now that he’s advertising.

“The percentage of people here with computers is actually quite high,” Fulgham notes. “And the community and the territory are fairly well connected.”

That’s the even more surprising thing: Free.Baffin is not the only game in town. As in other cities where free municipal Wi-Fi services have sprouted, there are commercial operators whose noses are apt to be out of joint. The local telephone company – which Fulgham originally came north to Iqaluit to work for – offers ADSL service, and Nunavut Broadband Development Corp., a non-profit community-based organization, offers non-Wi-Fi wireless access in some towns and villages, including Iqaluit.

“We’re not trying to compete,” Fulgham insists. “We’re just providing an alternative. Some people have been saying that the other services are slow or not reliable. So we’re coming to the aid of the public, offering a solution for people who can’t afford [the commercial services] or want something more reliable.”

Despite the service initially being offered for free, it’s clear Fulgham is ambitious for Free.Baffin. He won’t make any more moves before he’s proven that he can get sponsors in Iqaluit, but he’s already planning expansion. He figures that if some of the big corporate and government sponsors he’s targeting come on board, they’ll also want to sponsor sites in other communities because they have interests all across the territory.

“If we get a good response here, we will be rolling it out in other communities,” he says. “If the service does take off, we could be in all the communities in Nunavut by 2007. That’s what we’re looking at right now.”

It shouldn’t be too difficult: Yahoo only lists 15 communities in Nunavut altogether, and the total population, spread across a vast region, is less than that of a small city in the south.

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