British Columbia

Yaletown launches free Wi-Fi as City of Vancouver looks to expand coverage

The downtown neighbourhood becomes Vancouver's first free Wi-Fi district while the city says it's also looking at bringing coverage to the streets.

Downtown neighbourhood becomes city's first free Wi-Fi district

A family of visitors from Taiwan tapped into the free charging stations now available in Yaletown. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

The next time you're scrolling through your phone while in Yaletown, don't worry about data overages. Publicly accessible Wi-Fi is now available in the area for free — a first in the City of Vancouver.

"It's a fast enough network that you can send and receive videos ... there's a lot of bandwidth available and you don't have to pay for it," said Annette O'Shea, the executive director of Yaletown's business improvement association who spearheaded the initiative.

Called "Yaletown Free WiFi," the network is available outdoors along Mainland Street from Davie to just before Smithe Street. In the coming weeks, coverage will be extended to Hamilton and Homer streets.

Daylight-powered phone charging stations have also been set up, but users will need their own USB cord.

O'Shea says the area's approximately 900 business owners are paying for the services at a cost of about a dollar a day.

The Yaletown Business Improvement Association promises this solar-powered phone charging station will work into the wee hours of the night. It only requires daylight to generate power and a battery helps holds the charge. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

As one of of the city's busiest areas for pedestrian and tourist traffic, she says the expenditure was seen as an opportunity.

"If you're a tourist or a visitor, maybe it frees up some money for shopping, so there's a good business case for it," she said.

No sign-on required

Despite largely unanimous support from local business owners, she says it still took four years for the idea to come to fruition.

The association first struggled to find equipment durable enough to be outdoors.

Finding a telecommunications provider willing to meet the association's desire for a simple login procedure proved to be another challenge. 

Most major providers wanted data or access to the Wi-Fi users, shes says. 

Tapping into Yaletown's free Wi-Fi network doesn't require a password or email to log in. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

"Our Wi-Fi network does not require you to identify yourself or put in an email to sign on, you just say yes, please and you sign-on," said O'Shea.

As a workaround, they found a smaller third-party Internet supplier willing to take the risk.

In their initial pilot, O'Shea says an estimated 2,000 users logged on per day — during U2's recent concert in Vancouver, that number peaked at 8,000.

Free Wi-Fi in Vancouver?

The City of Vancouver explored the idea of providing free blanket Wi-Fi more than five years ago.

In 2015, it started offering the service at 43 civically owned buildings and locations like community centres, theatres, pools and marinas.

The city says expanding that coverage to select city streets is "an identified priority" and part of its "next phase," according to a statement, but could not provide a timeline or any details.

Free outdoor Wi-Fi isn't such a distant dream in some municipalities.

Large swathes of Fredericton and London, Ont., offer free access. Cities around the world like Tokyo, Helsinki and Macau also have city-wide hotspots.