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Mesh Lights Up Toronto

Touting its 1.5-square-kilometer WiFi mesh system as the "first municipal network to go live in a major metropolitan area in North America," Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc. said today it has lit up Phase 1 of the project that is planned to eventually cover the entire city of Toronto.

With a flashy brand name ("One Zone," complete with trademark symbol) and an extraordinarily dense array of nodes (88 for the 1.5km first phase), the THT network is certainly among the most ambitious of the many municipal mesh nets currently under construction or being planned. And THT president David Dobbin is hardly shy about hyping the network, which upon completion sometime in 2008 will, he says, cover the entire 460 square kilometers of greater Toronto. (See New Muni Models.)

"It's a huge area," Dobbin tells Unstrung. "It'll be the biggest one on the planet."

Built without government funding, using BA 200 access points from BelAir Networks Inc. , the Toronto network is something of a leap of faith on the part of Toronto Hydro Telecom, which will charge all users of the system after an initial six-month free trial period. Dobbin says his company is still finalizing cost estimates for the full city-wide network, but expects the toll to be in the $54 million range. The project's financial success depends on luring enough users in the free trial phase and then converting a significant percentage of them to paid status.

"The real question is how many free users we'll get, and the honest answer is, 'We don't know,' " acknowledges Dobbin. "Nobody in North America has done this before. We're guessing at the take rates and everything else."

If Toronto can duplicate the uptake levels of the city-wide WiFi network in Taipei, Taiwan -- where some 40,000 subscribers signed up in the first year -- "We'll be dancing on clouds," says Dobbin.

Besides its extreme density, which will enable voice service over the WiFi network, the Toronto project is different from most U.S. municipal networks in that all users will pay the same rates for service. No discounts or free service are being offered to low-income residents.

"The biggest question I have when people ask about free service for the underprivileged is, 'Who determines who's underprivileged?' " Dobbins said in an interview last month. "I don't understand how you would do that -- ask for your tax return before we let you on the WiFi network?"

The initial build-out of the project, slated to bring total coverage to six square kilometers of downtown Toronto, is scheduled to be completed in December.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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