Toronto Co-op Develops Intriguing Business Model

Wireless Nomad, a new Toronto group launched at the beginning of this year as a member controlled, not-for-profit cooperative, believes it has found a way around the pitfalls experienced by other community wireless groups.

by / November 9, 2005
Steve Wilton, president of Wireless Nomad Co-op, Toronto

Toronto is one of two Canadian cities (the other is Calgary) that has expressed possible interest in participating in Intel's Digital Communities initiative. According to Anand Chandrasekher, vice-president and director of Intel sales and marketing group, speaking at a recent teleconference, the two cities in Canada "are at varying stages of engagement."

However, when it comes to Toronto, the city's government is taking cautious baby steps to feel out possible municipal involvement in wireless. Earlier this year the city issued an RFP to install a single public access hotspot in the square in front of city hall. This will be in operation for a few months before the end of the year. After that, the city plans to look at the business case to determine if service warrants extending the hot spot beyond the trial period and whether to develop further hotspots in a few locations in the city.

The snail's pace of the city's plunge into the municipal wireless arena is one factor that has prompted Wi-Fi activists in the city to launch their own community wireless initiatives.

One grass-roots group, Wireless Toronto, has launched several hotspots in restaurants and now just fired up its first high-profile hotspot at Toronto's landmark St. Lawrence Market. Public access is free at all of these locations and it is the hotspot sponsors --usually businesses wanting to attract customers -- that pay for set up and monitoring as well as the wireless router. Additionally, they must also provide some form of high-speed Internet access themselves.

It is the same approach that many groups involved in setting up fledgling wireless community projects have adopted with mixed results, going back to the earliest days of community wireless. One example is the wireless "free-networking" Consume project in London England, which was launched in 2000 and subsequently, received much media attention. It is still in operation today, but no on the scale its founders originally envisioned.

"The original idea of Consume was to create a metropolitan meshed network that would link users at the edge of the network together into a coherent local infrastructure," said Consume co-founder Julian Priest in a study published last year, The State of Wireless London. "This connection would allow collective bargaining for backhaul bandwidth, and a free local infrastructure that could support local content and an autonomous media."

While there was considerable activity by Consume's key tech-savvy volunteers, what emerged was not a managed or ad-hoc meshed network. The core problem was one of density. Even after several years, not enough people were participating in the free-networking project for local interconnection to occur.

So Consume took the only approach available -- have many of the nodes connect to the Internet through a DSL connection. "This treats network access as a service like electricity or water," Priest explained in his report. "It is a centralized resource that is distributed outwards to 'consumers' at the edge of the network. As the gatekeeper is the telco providing the ADSL connection, these networks are in effect extensions of the telco provider network rather than an alternative to it. While these networks are often offered for free for public use by their owners, this is often in breach of ADSL providers terms and conditions and as such these networks are susceptible to legal challenges (as has happened in the US), and price control."

The problems that Consume ran into -- simply not enough nodes to make the system work as they hoped -- seems to be common

among many such grassroots community initiatives.

Wireless Nomads
But this doesn't mean that a model can't be found that would make community network growth almost a natural occurrence. Wireless Nomad, a new Toronto group launched at the beginning of this year as a member controlled, not-for-profit cooperative, believes it has found a way around the pitfalls experienced by other community wireless groups -- at least in Canada.

"Because most Internet providers don't allow you to share bandwidth, we decided that the best way to deal with this was to become our own Internet provider," explained Wireless Nomad president, Steve Wilton. "So instead of trying to run our wireless network on top of Rogers (a local cable provider) or on top of Bell, we replace that with our own. We provide the DSL service and the wireless connectivity."

This solution is possible in Canada because the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the agency responsible for regulating Canada's broadcasting and telecommunications systems, currently requires incumbent carriers to resell access to the lines which they developed as a protected monopoly. This has allowed other ISPs to offer DSL services at competitive prices.

Wireless Nomad, using their own DSL service as backhaul, installs custom-built meshing Wi-Fi access points on the premises of each of the co-op's members or subscribers. These provide each member with a wired DSL connection, an 802.11g wireless local area network, and high speed wireless roaming throughout the areas in the city covered at no extra charge.

The monthly subscription fee ($30 Canadian) for members is less than the major Internet providers charge for a just a DSL connection. The co-op also uses left-over bandwidth (members have priority) to provide free Internet access anywhere in the community where their signals reach, provided users have signed up for a free account.

"We are still somewhat dependent upon Bell because we have to lease the copper from them and the CRTC say they have to resell it," explained Wilton. "Actually we have a three phase plan to get rid of the DSL entirely. The first phase, the one we are on right now, is running on DSL we provide using leased copper from Bell. Then we start building a mesh network between the nodes that are within range of each other that will eventually allow us to eliminate the DSL service. Finally, we will replace all the DSL with the technology of the day, WiMAX or whatever is affordable. That's probably 5 years away still."

Wilton realizes that the one concern users might have is security. "Our system was designed for security from the ground up," he said. "The first layer is an actual login for all users. The second layer, we actually install on each node a VPN server that allows members to connect back to their local network to share files, share printers, and so on. And every connection is firewalled."

The result is that for less than most people pay for a standard DSL connection in the city, they can become a voting member of the co-op, receive a wired DSL connection, high speed Wi-Fi access everywhere the network extends, and they contribute to providing free wireless access to their community.

Without any publicity, the co-op has installed 20 nodes, mainly in two neighborhoods, providing almost full coverage there in the first 5 months of operation. A couple of newspaper mentions of the Co-op has brought a flood of interest. "We are receiving two or three calls an hour, people interested in signing up or finding out more," he said. "In the last week or so we've had 11 new orders from people -- 11 new members. So it's really starting to take off."

"There are lots of different people getting involved with lots of different reasons why they want wireless," Wilton added. "My goal is to make it so people go wireless, get on line, get connected and share their bandwidth with each other for a really cheap price. And as well, we get away from the situation where someone else can control your access. As a co-op, our members are ultimately the ones who run the network they use."

Area so far covered by the Wireless Nomad Co-op.
Blake Harris Editor