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The Higher ED Blog: How Wi-Fi can boost tourism in your rural town

Michelle Madden / June 22, 2015

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The Higher ED Blog: How Wi-Fi can boost tourism in your rural town

In cities, the internet is fast and ubiquitous. As a resident of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, I’m alarmed when a web page takes longer than a few seconds to load. A true millennial, I get aggravated when free Wi-Fi is not available and outraged if I’m asked to pay for it. I feel this way, because I’ve been spoiled by my urban lifestyle, even though I know that in rural Canada, internet and cell data can be spotty or non-existent. (At my parents’ house in rural Nova Scotia, I need to put my cell phone on a window sill to get SMS texts or attempt a phone call.)

Jennifer Schnier, the Township of Georgian Bay’s Communications and Economics Officer, is a big advocate for rural internet and saw a need for improved service in Honey Harbour—a small port community economically dependent on the cottagers scattered throughout Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands region. While some wireless service has been available in the area for a number of years, the undulating topography and Canadian Shield rock prevented the signal from reaching many homes and cottages. The Township felt that better internet access could spur tourism development in the community, so it needed a new way to provide this access.

The solution: the Township worked with a local vendor to install seven temporary modems, on a trial basis, covering 800 feet of storefronts in the town centre. The pilot project ran for six weeks in the peak summer season (July to September 2014) with the intention of finding out how much demand existed for Wi-Fi. The service wasn’t advertised in order to discover the true extent of the demand for internet, rather than allowing it to be affected by good advertising. Since the Wi-Fi hotspot was free and directed at the public, the vendor provided separate bandwidth so that local users (particularly businesses) would not lose speed or service due to increased traffic.

Jennifer was eager to measure the project’s performance. She collected data on usage volume, users, and user behavior and shared the results in her Internet in Rural Communities paper for the Economic Development Program’s Year 3 course. She found that the demand exceeded expectations.

Results

At the end of the study, it was determined (beyond the report ) that during the six week pilot project, over 2300 users downloaded more than 4.5 terabytes of data and uploaded 1.2 terabytes.  The service maintained an average speed of 30 Megabits per second, well above the federal government’s minimum commitment of 5 mbps.

The average session was 55 minutes long, with most users accessing Netflix (40%), Google (25%), and major social media sites like Facebook (10%).  Anecdotally, the high Netflix traffic is by cottagers coming into town to download a few movies to watch back at the cottage, which is particularly helpful for keeping kids, teens, and adults alike entertained on rainy days! Interestingly, a significant portion of users accessed online sources of local information, including the Southeast Georgian Chamber of Commerce (10%) and Remax (5%). The chamber website was wisely designated as the landing page after the Wi-Fi service agreement page, which generated a 400 per cent increase in traffic for that site. Once on the page, users frequently searched for local restaurants and accommodations.

Impact on tourism

Through the pilot project’s timeframe, Honey Harbour businesses noticed more foot traffic in the core and increased activity on their social media accounts. Cottagers and visitors needing their online fix came into the core and frequented restaurants while they browsed the web. People also used the opportunity to post about their experience on social media, raising the profile of Honey Harbour on sites like Trip Advisor and the internet at large. Specifically, there was an increase in ‘likes’ on the businesses’ Facebook pages, and there were 10 new posts during the study period on Trip Advisor.

Next Steps

The Honey Harbour project proved that there was plenty of latent demand in a quiet corner of Muskoka, and that a Wi-Fi hotspot could help local businesses and promote development.  Their hotspot approach was a smart way to overcome geographical limitations and provide free, fast service to an underserved population.

The federal government’s commitment to provide 98 per cent of Canadian households with access to download speeds of at least 5 mbps is encouraging but not enough. Communities who need more can join Jennifer in aggressively advocating for improved access.  Those with a few more resources can follow the lead of Olds, Alberta and build a community-owned service.

 

About the paper’s author

Jennifer Schnier is a full time employee for the Township of Georgian Bay in the District of Muskoka in the capacity of Communications and Economics Officer. Jennifer is presently enrolled full time in the Local Economic Development master’s program at the University of Waterloo Jennifer is married with 5 children, and lives in Muskoka. Jennifer is relentlessly advocating for increased speeds for Internet for all communities in Muskoka, but is biased to do research in Georgian Bay. Jennifer is the Chair of the Muskoka Community Network. Jennifer is presently in application with FedNor and Infrastructure Canada to advocate for speeds/capacity in Georgian Bay and in particular the community of Honey Harbour. The Township of Georgian Bay considers Wi-Fi hot spots to be essential services, so it has included Wifi as a component of the Honey Harbour Waterfront Plan. A video of this plan is available online.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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