I am in Fredericton, New Brunswick this week and next, doing fieldwork research for my thesis, and for the CWIRP project. I have come here to find out more about North America’s first free public wi-fi network, the Fred eZone. This study complements the work I have already done as part of Montreal’s Ile Sans Fil. As I settle into this small, polite city of 50,000 people I feel that I have arrived in a Canada that I haven’t visited in a long time.
Although I grew up far from here, I grew up in a place like this: where you say hello and make conversation with people on the street, where most residential streets have no traffic at all, and where the local park is busier on a Sunday than the downtown. A place where after the university theatre department’s performance, a traffic jam forms.
Fredericton is not the largest city in the small province of New Brunswick: that is Saint John, a seaport city whose architecture still testifies to the wealth of the early nineteenth century. But it’s home to the oldest university in North America, and the seat of the Anglican Church in Canada. In fact, it was considered a city (in cultural terms) only after building its cathedral. Walking around, I see comfortable homes hunkered down in midwinter snow, fellow skiers in the park, and many university students trekking across campus or toboganning down its hills in the dark.
Trying to put the city’s efforts to build their own communication infrastructure in context reveals to me my own biases: the ones I have developed from living in big cities for the past six years. Not everyone is looking for the Next Big Thing, nor to sharpen the cutting edge. Many people want to live in places where they feel safe, happy, and comfortable, with good jobs and the same advantages as everyone else. They also want their efforts to be recognized when they do something remarkable – like becoming their own telecommunications operator (AND giving away free Wi-fi) when the big companies tell them they are too far away from the main markets to get fair rates.
At home in Montreal some folks I know have been complaining about a lack of “buzz” around new technology projects. What is more important? The buzz, or doing what needs to be done? From the snowbound banks of the St. John River, I am arguing for the latter.