Montrealers claim to lead Canada in free Wi-Fi

Montrealers could soon boast their city has the largest number of free Wi-Fi hot spots, says an administrator of Ile Sans Fils (ISF), a group of volunteers that helps business owners install wireless Internet access for their customers in Montreal.

Richard Lussier, an administrator with ISF, said he group has installed about 155 free hot spots, serving about 60,000 users.

The ISF provides volunteers who help businesses, such as coffee shops, set up Wi-Fi hot spots, which are wireless local-area networks that connect to the public Internet through gateways. Wi-Fi technology is based on Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11g standard, which provides transfer rates of up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps) in the 2.4 GHz frequency range to users located of up to 100 meters from the access point.

Hot spot operators need to pay for their high-speed Internet service, a Wi-Fi access point and a C$50 annual membership fee to the ISF.

The service is aimed at coffee shops and other businesses looking for a way to encourage people with notebook PCs or handheld devices to enter their premises.

Lussier said about 50 businesses have signed up over the last year.

"The increase in the (number of) hot spots is not as fast as the increase of users, which we're very happy about," he said. "What we see is, two years ago, we were at 10,000 users. Now we're approaching 60,000 users with only 50 percent more hot spots."

He added Montreal now rivals Seattle and Austin, Tex. in the availability of free Wi-Fi hot spots.

"We could be very soon could be the biggest one," he said.

As of Thursday, the Austin Wireless City Project had the names of 76 hot spot operators listed on its Web site, 19 of which are public libraries. The Seattle Wireless Network also sets up hotspots, with a goal to create a broadband wireless metropolitan area network.

In Canada,Toronto has the Wireless Toronto Centre for Social Innovation, which includes 38 businesses operating hot spots. Users who want to pay for Wi-Fi connectivity can hook up to One Zone, operated by Toronto Hydro Telecom in the downtown area.

The nation's capital has seven free Wi-Fi hotspots listed on the Web site of Ottawa-Gatineau Wi-Fi (ogWi-Fi), a group of volunteers that helps local businesses offer free service.

"We would like to get a larger number of hot spots in this coming year," said ogWiFi president Emil Mitev. "That was our news years resolution. We are looking at Ile Sans Fils in what they have done and how they have done it, but we are in a different environment."

Because Ottawa has so many government and high-tech workers, many of them tend to work from home or where they can access the Internet. "It's a different culture because in Montreal you have all those cafes and all those business owners," Mitev said. "There's the whole coffee culture in Montreal whereas here it's not as prominent."

In Montreal, the hot spot users tend to be students or self-employed business users, Lussier said.

"They will use it once in a while," he said. "I don't think it has a big impact on the ISPs. I haven't any people disconnected home Internet connection to rely on hot spots, because people don't want to sit in a café all the time."

Ile Sans Fils is trying to persuade the city of Montreal to set up hotspots in parks, arenas and other public places. Lussier said city officials are interested in reaching an agreement, and he hopes they will have hot spots up and running by this summer.

"Our network is not only there to provide free Internet,"he said, because hot spot operators can use ISF's software, dubbed WiFiDog, to generate portal pages to give users information on the community.

"You can help people know what's going on with the environment in their area," Lussier said. "You can know what politicians in your area have done or what they have said recently. These are all things that we want to put on the network."

Though industry analysts tend to recommend Wi-Fi users install security features such as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) or Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), Ils Sans Fils' hot spots do not include these security protocols, Lussier said, because users passwords are protected using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, which is also common on electronic commerce sites, such as Web banking.

"If you communicate with your bank anywhere on a hot spot or on a wired network, you're going to have the same security," he said. "You can sniff the packets but you can't understand what they mean. No one can sniff your password."

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