Free Wi Fi for the whole Yukon?

I don't know if the question is provocative or just stupid, but I am going to ask it anyway: Why can't we have ubiquitous, free wireless internet access in all Yukon communities? In framing the question this way, I am consciously echoing the mission state

I don’t know if the question is provocative or just stupid, but I am going to ask it anyway: Why can’t we have ubiquitous, free wireless internet access in all Yukon communities?

In framing the question this way, I am consciously echoing the mission statement of the now-defunct YukonNet Operating Society.

That was a volunteer group I was a part of in the ‘90s, which was dedicated to achieving “reasonable, affordable internet access to all Yukon communities.”

Back in ‘93 and ‘94, that proposition looked pretty crazy, too – a techie-delusion the territory could not afford, and that nobody needed, anyway.

Such was the word we got from the Yukon government’s Department of Economic Development in those days – the very department that was one of our first customers when the society brought the internet online in Whitehorse in January of 1995.

By providing advocacy, unpaid sweat equity and honest broker services, the society eventually got Northwestel, the Yukon government and federal government funding agencies onside and, within the next seven years or so, fulfilled its mission.

Today, Yukoners have access to high-speed internet service pretty much everywhere in the territory.

The problem now is, we are drifting from being a jurisdiction in the vanguard of digital communications technology, to being one bringing up the rear.

Having DSL and cable modem high-speed access available in even our smallest communities is a pretty cool accomplishment; but it’s also true that it is yesterday’s accomplishment, and DSL and modem internet are yesterday’s news.

The internet is going to the air – via Wi-Fi and cellular services – while the Yukon continues to plod along on the ground.

The days are rapidly fading when people will be content to sit down in front of big, whirring, clicking, power-sucking desktop computers, attached to location-specific cables that connect those heavy-metal beasts to the internet .

Smart phones, netbooks, iPods and iPads are harbingers of the digital technology of the future, both for personal and enterprise computing; and the Yukon’s internet infrastructure and business models are drastically out of touch with that future.

While 3G high-speed cellular service is now available in Whitehorse, it is highly unlikely that the rural communities will see anything better than the existing, lower speed 1X they have now.

The business case for taking on the high construction and operation costs of 3G cell service in the rural communities is, simply put, out of the question.

It is not likely to be reasonable or affordable, either to the customer or the provider, in the foreseeable future.

But Wi-Fi service could scale very well, both in terms of price and capability, to the needs of the Yukon’s smaller communities; and the benefits of having it could be substantial, both to the general public and to our local governments and businesses.

Yukon Energy, for instance, could use that public bandwidth for tracking and reporting power consumption in buildings all across the territory.

Yukon Housing could use the bandwidth to collect data from sensors in its buildings to monitor energy efficiency, air quality and other factors.

The Yukon government’s Health department could use the bandwidth to talk to patients with chronic or serious health issues in the communities, and in some cases even remotely monitor their health status.

There could be a potential cost benefit to the city of Whitehorse, too. If and when the city starts to monitor and charge for public water consumption, that monitoring could be carried out digitally over the community’s public Wi-Fi network.

All these ideas, I confess, are really just rabbits I am pulling out of my hat. Some of them might be cost-effective, some not. And I am sure there are a host of other applications and services – particularly in the tourism sector – that I have neither the imagination or space here to mention.

It is relatively easy to see who would stand to benefit from such a network, but it is also only fair to ask who would stand to suffer from it.

First and foremost, of course, would be the local internet service providers (of whom there is now only one, Northwestel), who would stand to lose significant revenues if people stopped buying DSL and cable services for their homes and businesses, and just used the free public wireless service.

That problem, though, could be addressed in a way that is fair to the telco, while also serving the best interests of the Yukon.

Corporate and governmental agencies in the Yukon could sign on as anchor tenants in the network, paying Northwestel a fair rate for the value of their share of the service.

Furthermore, the amount of bandwidth available to “free” users could be capped at some reasonable level – enough to permit acceptable web browsing and e-mail retrieval, for instance – with more bandwidth-rich accounts being available on a subscription basis.

The telco could also find itself in a position to garner new, additional revenues by offering value-enhancing services (in the form of smart phone “apps” of local utility, for instance) to users of the network.

OK, so it is March, and I may be suffering from Mad Hare Syndrome, but I do think this is an idea worth consideration in greater depth, and by people better informed than I am, in the near future.

And maybe it takes a new organization of “delusional” techies – Son of YukonNet – to make the crazy idea a practical, beneficial reality.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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