Grassroots Wi-Fi project off to a slow start in Victoria

Business association happy with progress of its own Wi-Fi service

Three months since a grassroots initiative scored a $3,500 grant to launch wireless Internet service downtown, the project has hit a speed bump.

“We are a bit behind,” admitted Liam McLachlan, volunteer project manager for the non-profit named MeshMesh.

In February, it was the darling of community judges belonging to the Awesome Sh*t Club, which doles out small grants to help community groups launch “awesome” ideas.

MeshMesh pitched a plan to convince downtown businesses to share their Internet with the public, simply by installing a router to send their wireless signal to anyone within approximately 30 metres.

Six businesses signed on, each paying $150 for the hardware. In exchange, an ad for their business flashes on the screen of people logging on.

But today there are still only six business signed on, serving six to 15 people with free Wi-Fi each day.

“The interest is still there, people are still getting in touch with us,” McLachlan said, adding the volunteers at MeshMesh are too busy with their day jobs to respond.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Victoria Business Association launched its own $25,000 Wi-Fi network April 19. It targets pedestrian traffic at nine of the heaviest traffic areas downtown.

“It’s thriving,” said Ken Kelly, DVBA general manager. “We’re pleased with it. We’ve got as many as 40 users at any one moment in time.”

The association plans to monitor the new service over the summer and may expand the service, pending results.

McLachlan welcomes the business group’s initiative, saying the more Wi-Fi coverage downtown, the better.

And despite the slow start for MeshMesh, he’s not giving up. Rather, he’s now calling out for more volunteers. People are needed to sell the idea to more businesses and help install routers.

McLachlan also hopes to attract a group of more technically-capable volunteers for a different, but related goal of MeshMesh: to enable food carts or other market vendors to use it for high-speed debit and credit transactions.

“We think that would make open-air markets a lot more accessible,” he said. “It’s a real benefit to those small businesses, because then it’s a no-cost, or low-cost, merchant service for them.”

Free Wi-Fi is also catching on in Saanich. Municipal buildings such as recreation centres, fire halls and the municipal hall now offer the service.

“I think, in general, it’s becoming a bit of an expectation that the service of Wi-Fi is provided,” said Jon Woodland, assistant manager of infrastructure in Saanich’s information technology department.

Next up, Saanich is looking for partnerships that can help provide free Wi-Fi at parks during municipal events.

– with files from Kyle Slavin

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