Zap Quebec is a nonprofit organization that supplies free Wi-Fi in public spaces around Quebec City, Canada. They are largely volunteer-operated, relying on only two full-time paid employees. Zap was founded in 2006 as a community service organized in response to the high cost of local connectivity. The first two years of their operations saw the installation of 35 hotspots around Quebec City; today, more than 800 of their hotspots are active in spaces available to the community at large – in privately owned businesses such as cafés, as well as government-run institutions such as administrative offices, libraries, and public parks. In the last year, roughly 1.7 million connections were made on Zap Quebec hotspots.
In Quebec City, just like in other cities, Wi-Fi is used to attract residents to certain parts of the city. Based on a study with hotspot users in Quebec, the hotspots are highly concentrated in the city center, and those further outside the city are mostly based in libraries and community or athletic centers. Those are the sites where the public tends to gather and connect, followed by cafés, restaurants, and bars. The usage of hotspots seems to depend on their proximity to public gathering places as well as of transport networks.
The same study also showed that the typical users of hotspots are young, male, and in the upper income brackets who have children. They use the Internet to be more productive and avoid travelling, and values the hotspots as it allows them to work in a variety of places or spend downtime using Internet access. More specifically, they use the Internet for both work-related activities such as writing and sending emails, as well as non work-related activities such as chatting online, listening to music, online shopping, or searching for information for personal and professional matters.
||Fixed broadband subscriptions (%)
(people per sq.km)
||Mobile cellular subscriptions (%)
|Median household income
||Individuals using the Internet (%)
(Mean years of schooling)
||Individuals using the Internet by Gender (%) (ITU, 2016)
Zap, an acronym for Zone d’Accès Public
, identifies this Quebecois project operating within the capital city as a grassroots provider of public Wi-Fi hotspots. Founded in 2006, the organization began as a pet project of local volunteers to establish free networks as an alternative to the steeply priced established Internet service providers (ISPs).
Today, Zap Quebec is still largely volunteer-run, but maintains two full-time employees: one who handles administrative tasks and organizational affairs, and another who works on the technical development end. The early years of their project saw the solidification of their services and their partnership with local public institutions thanks to a CA$500,000 (US$ 392,350) grant from the provincial government.
With this grant, they purchased their own server, through which all the hotspots share bandwidth, and built infrastructure. Costs are kept low through the use of their own personalized open-source software, reasonable annual fee structure, and low employee overhead. Today, they have grown to hosting 800 hotspots in a variety of neighborhoods and continue to pursue their goal of creating a sustainably wireless city.
||800 Wi-Fi hotspots
|Year of connectivity
||Cost to users
||Total cost of infrastructure
2 paid employees
$150 annual fee for commercial partners
$450 annual fee for government partners
2/3 men, 1/3 women
18-35 years old
||Chamber of Commerce
Federal Government Local provincial government organizations
Ministry of Transportation
University-sponsored studies – Since Zap Quebec’s inception, two local master’s theses have been written at the Université Laval on the subject of its impact and operations. Two sociology students conducted the first by devising a theory and methodology for ascertaining the type and intention of the users of the free Wi-Fi service and had surprising results. They found that the free Wi-Fi service, which Zap assumed would be most attractive to younger populations, was in fact being largely used by the elderly and those for whom Internet access was not easily available as a private resource. The second thesis, written in the department of architecture, focused on specifying the ways in which the placement of hotspots affected their use and popularity, uncovering that proximity to public transport was a major factor in hotspot traffic.
Privacy – Zap Quebec is uninterested in collecting metrics on its users. It does not rely on personal data for advertising (it does not solicit nor accept advertising revenue), and is unaware of the details of its users’ individual activities. They do, however, collect unidentifiable data about which websites are the most accessed, and reports that Facebook tops the list by far.
High turnover – By relying mostly on private businesses, Zap Quebec has found that they can cover a desirably large swath of public space within the city. Yet, this business-centric model has posed a continuity problem. When a business hosting a hotspot closes, it is up to Zap Quebec to seek out the new proprietors and convince them to keep the service. With the volume of hotspots on the rise, this can be a complicated and time-consuming task.
Upgrades – Another continuity obstacle that Zap Quebec faces is convincing businesses that it is necessary and worthwhile to upgrade their equipment as needed. While Zap Quebec sells the equipment at cost, many business owners are not willing to pay a second time for new equipment as their old devices become obsolete.
Government involvement – Zap Quebec partners extensively with municipal governments to deliver free Wi-Fi as an ad-hoc public service, but has no official placement as a government provision. Though the financial contribution from government hotspots is significantly larger than what Zap asks of small private businesses, they operate without the extensive resources a government-sponsored or public-affiliated operation would provide.
Lack of robust digital economy – Today, 70 percent of Canadian online shopping is done on websites operating from within the United States, as Canada lags behind in knowledge and economic and digital resources to set up online businesses for domestic consumption. The Chamber of Commerce in Quebec is an important element helping to contribute to growing Canada’s digital economy, and is key to Zap’s operations and outreach.
Local government support – Though Zap Quebec is not a government-run operation, they do enjoy strong partnerships with local governments. They noted that many similar organizations have failed because they did not work to garner the support of their governments, identifying too conservatively as self-sufficient community organizations. Zap Quebec demonstrates the utility of government support for volunteer community projects, citing beneficial backing from local government offices.
Community organization – Despite the lack of robust government infrastructure, the project’s status as a community organization engenders support and feedback from its users. The upside of not being a government institution is the leeway and participation afforded by the users. Zap Quebec reports that they get a lot of help from people willing and able to be their eyes on the ground, happy to provide notice and detail about non-working hotspots to assist in troubleshooting.