The City of Toronto launched its own Wi-Fi network in the downtown financial district Wednesday, allowing users to tap into the largest such network in Canada and possibly one of the cheapest.

"This is an historic day for Toronto, for Canada and for Toronto Hydro Telecom," said David Dobbin, president of the city-owned utility that built the network. "Our new Wi-Fi network is a powerhouse combination of leading-edge technology."

The coming of the network has been long-awaited by city residents, who have been looking for an inexpensive and convenient way to communicate through their computers, whether they are sitting in their offices, on the streetcar or in their front yard at home.

Accesswill be free for the first six months. After that, it will cost $5 an hour, $10 a day or $29 per month.

Theservice has been opposed by commercial providers who say it is a government-subsidized service that has no place competing with the private sector. A variety of private-sector companies offer Wi-Fi networks in Toronto, but most are limited to a single building and the surrounding area, such as around coffee shops and university buildings.

"I don't think Mr. [Ted] Rogers is going to be quaking in his boots or losing a lot of sleep," said Ian Grant, a technology consultant. "[Roger's] is going to be faster than anything that Toronto Hydro is offering; it offers more services."

Hotspots on streetlight poles

When finished in December, the network will encompass six square kilometres of the downtown core — south to Front Street, north to Bloor Street, west to Bathurst Streetand east to Parliament Street. Thearea that includes the financial core, two universities and municipal and provincial governmental buildings.

The system usesradio-access points — or hotspots — installed on streetlight poles throughout the city, giving what Dobbin hopes is blanket coverage throughout the downtown core.

All users have to do is turn on their computer, laptop, personal digital assistant, entertainment device or cellphone in order to access a high-speed broadband or cell-phone network.

Wi-Fi — originally the name for a wireless local area network standard — is also used to set up home and office wireless networks, communicate with VoIP (internet) telephones and to connect a wide range of consumer electronics.

Fibre-optic network included

The Toronto Wi-Fi system also ties in with Toronto Hydro Telecom's fibre-optic network, a system that spans 450 kilometres and connects more than 400 commercial buildings in Toronto, with interconnections to other municipal telecom networks that border the city.

The first stage opened Wednesday covers the area from Front Street to Queen Street, Spadina Avenue to Church Street. The network will be extended northto College Street in mid-October.

Toronto joins a handful of other cities in Canada and around the world, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and London, England,that are setting up such a network.

"This is a watershed moment that will put Toronto on the leading edge of the telecommunications industry nationally and globally," said Toronto Mayor David Miller. "It sends a strong signal to investors, researchers and other business partners that we see Toronto as a hub for innovation, investment and continued prosperity."

Dobbin claimed the new service will cost 30 per cent less that average market price for high-speed internet access and 45 per cent below the average cost of a cell phone offering.

"We think these prices give everyone a fair deal on broadband access that is fast, secure, reliable and best of all, untethered," Dobbin said.