Paradoxes of Visibility — Politics

However, from a perspective of splintering urbanism, there are numerous paradoxes inherent in Ile Sans Fil’s work. As Sandvig (2004) points out, some aspects of providing free wireless hotspots have problematic political and economic underpinnings. One of these is the organization’s work with Business Improvement Districts, groups that are often associated with pro-business, splintering activities. fringe.html
Ile Sans Fil acts as a sponsor for the Montreal Fringe Festival. Photo by Boris Anthony.

Ile Sans Fil’s members acknowledge the participation of businesses and community groups in their marketing material. For them, partnering with businesses has simply been an efficient and effective way to increase the number of hotspots they provide, raising their profile in the city and attracting media attention and new users.
Even more efficient and effective for raising the group’s profile has been their recent partnership with the St. Laurent Merchant’s Association (a BID). The Merchant’s Association is currently undertaking a campaign to “clean up” and “streamline” the street, removing visual clutter while improving services. One of the services they have decided to provide is complete wireless internet coverage from Sherbrooke St. to Mont-Royal Ave. The Merchant’s Association purchased the hardware and arranged the donations to Ile Sans Fil, businesses agreed to share their internet connections, and Ile Sans Fil members installed the equipment and will provide support services.

For the Merchant’s Association, wireless connectivity represents another value-added function that distinguishes this “micropolis” (Graham & Marvin, 2001) from other locations in the city. In some ways, partnering with a BID is antithetical to Ile Sans Fil’s goals for providing more widely-accessible internet service, as BIDs are often associated with urban splintering and consolidation of services. But there is another interpretation that demonstrates the importance of Montreal’s local politics, and the potential for future community-based infrastructure development. Partnering with a community organization instead of a commercial operator is indeed less expensive for the St-Laurent Merchant’s Association, but it also presents a progressive image, one that some commentators have lauded as an example of “Public-Community Partnership’ that offers an alternative to “Public-Private Partnerships’ (Dumais, 2005). In Montreal, where an active community sector already includes numerous organizations (Communautique, Reboot, and Koumbit to name only a few) working with technology, perhaps the inclusion of a community-based partner on a project of this scale suggests that local politics support a community-based alternative to commercial ICT infrastructure. Furthermore, Ile Sans Fil has begun negotiating with CAM, a local co-op ISP to create a partnership whereby CAM would offer to provide bandwidth for Ile Sans Fil hotspots, and potentially broadcast Ile Sans Fil signals from its antennas. As much as Ile Sans Fil’s approach contains paradoxes, then, it also contains interesting possibilities for changing the way ICT infrastructure, at least in one local place, is developed and used.