Toronto Wifi Jail

The biggest tech headache of the year is about to take place in Toronto. There is no film festival anywhere in the world that makes people like myself suffer like the Toronto International Film Festival. Compared to Cannes and Sundance and given the generic expectation level of a major film festival, Toronto wifi is similar to the wifi in Oxford, Mississippi. Or nearly.


My iPhone was showing five bars this morning but the AT&T Communication Manager (i.e., the air card software) was saying no dice. It does this from time to time. Actually, more often. Technology lets you down all the time.

A festival without lots of plentiful free wifi all over the place is a drag — that’s all there is to it. Every journalist who attends needs to constantly file, and getting online in Toronto — or more particularly in the areas near theatres and screening rooms — has always been a pain in the neck. Wifi is obtainable, of course, but a lone-wolf journalist has to work and scheme and pay and sometimes walk blocks out of his way in order to get it.

Sundance is sometimes a tough wifi situation, but it’s workable. You can always find it here and there, and my AT&T air card works most of the time. And there’s always the option of Starbucks, wifi cafes and hotels. There’s no using the air card in Cannes because of the ridiculous expense, but there’s good wifi everywhere inside Cannes’ Grand Palais, which has two huge press salons, as well as inside the American Pavillion and in the various hotels on the Croisette. So it’s a pretty good deal in both places.

But good free air in Toronto is elusive and at a premium, and year after year festival chiefs have made no real effort to improve things. There’s only one lousy wifi room inside press headquarters at the Sutton Plaza hotel (a sea of flat screens that are always occupied with a line of people waiting to use them), except there’s no desk space for people with their own laptops to sit down and work upon, as you can do in Cannes. As far as I know the Sutton flat-screen room is pretty much it as far as festival-supplied “air” goes.

You can always go to a Starbucks (I pay them a monthly wifi fee), but Starbucks can be extremely crowded and you never know. Or you can go to a wifi cafe that sells air, but the cost of this adds up. As in France, AT&T air cards are unusable in Toronto due to absurd fees.

It would stand to reason that wifi galore would be available inside the press screening headquarters at the Bloor/Bay Manulife Center, which houses the multi-screen Cineplex Odeon Varsity plex. I’m always looking to file between screenings and there’s a cafe adjacent to the theatre concessions stand that would be perfect for this, but the Cineplex Odeon has never offered wifi, not even on a pay-as-you-go basis. They clearly don’t want people like me hanging around. It’s obviously a deliberate policy.

Festival staffers have use of private-password wifi at the Cineplex Odeon, of course, but journalists aren’t allowed to use it. Naturally! Year in and year out, and things never change. An American visitor can’t get online inside the Cineplex Odeon unless he/she has a Canadian wifi account and an air card, and who wants to spring for that?

The only way to file between Cineplex Odeon Varsity screenings is to walk down to the Starbucks on the level below, but the place is always full of non-working customers taking up tables and just lolling around, reading books and chit-chatting and whatnot. And there’s only one wall outlet if the computer battery is running low. And 80% of the time someone else is always using it for some non-journalistic purpose, or the tables around it are always filled with 20-something women who are always giggling and hanging around and sipping lattes for interminable periods.

  • lazespud

    Jeff —

    Have you thought about enabling tethering on your iphone? It’s not approved by apple or AT&T, but I have yet to hear of anyone being dinged by AT&T yet. It takes about 1 minute, and then you can use your phone as an internet connection for your computer; just plug in the usb cable. You will never get frustrated by lack of wi-fi again…

    Caveat; in other countries, like Canada, you are beholden to whatever data plan you’ve set up; so if you don’t have a plan and are roaming, expect more of those thousand dollar phone bills. But when you go to sundance, if you can get data through your iphone you can get data through your computer. I’ve known several people who have those ridiculously expensive air card plans find that this works way better (the connections are always better), and it saves them like 800 bucks a year…

    This feature is enabled for the iphone with carriers in every single country that sells iphones EXCEPT here with AT&T, because their weak-ass infrastructure isn’t quite up to par. Supposedly it will be turned on as a feature within the next 6 months. Until then, you can do it yourself in a matter of minutes (search iphone, tether, instructions on google.). But remember that you are violating AT&T’s EULA, so you’ve been warned…

  • Edward

    I can’t believe the festival organizers can’t do more to allow you to do your job. You’d think they’d want to give you wi-fi access so you can promote their festival.

  • p.Vice

    Fuck those non-working customers lolling around and chit-chatting. What do they think Canada is, a free country or something where you can go to Starbucks just to have a coffee and talk to friends?

  • mccool

    Great post, Jeff. Great parody of eloi behavior… as stinging and damning as Morrissey’s’ Lazy Sunbathers.’

  • QualityGibberish

    If I had that outlet, I’d plug in a lava lamp and nurse a latte for five hours.

  • http://avclub.com Noel Murray

    You can get decent free wi-fi on the ground floor of the Manulife, and I’ve never had trouble finding a place to sit. I’ve also been able to get wi-fi in the past if I sit just outside the VIP Screening Rooms of the Varsity. Either way, I’ve been able to write up 5 movies a day, every day of the fest, without any real difficulty. I do wish the wi-fi were better, but it’s hardly catastrophic.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Wells to Murray: You’re not being specific. What do you mean wifi outside the VIP Screening Rooms? With no password? What’s the bandwidth called? This is news to me. And how do you get wifi on the first floor of the Manulife? Using what name?

  • scooterzz

    wells — have you seen this map or heard of this group?

    http://auth.wirelesstoronto.ca/hotspots_map.php

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Wells to scooterz: No, but thanks.

  • http://www.incontention.com Kristopher Tapley

    Suggestion: unlock the internet tethering feature on the iPhone. Internet anywhere, anytime. Good in a pinch.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    You mean turn off roaming and just go straight wifi and use whatever free system you can use. Yeah, that’s something I always do.

  • http://avclub.com Noel Murray

    Yes, with no password. For the Varsity VIP, I sit towards the back of the little bar/coffee area, on one of the stools. On the ground floor, I tend to sit on one of the chairs/benches near the bookstore. I don’t know the names of any of the signals off-hand. I just open my laptop, look for open signals, and grab one. I can’t guarantee there’ll be open signals this year, but I’ve found some over the last several years, with minimal difficulty.

  • longrunner

    The Aroma Espresso Bar has free wifi. It’s beside the Bloor Theatre.

  • lazespud

    Jeff —

    I sounds like you might not be totally on the same page as to what tethering means. Think of it this way: You know how you can open up safari on your iphone and surf the web, regardless as to whether you have wifi on or not? This is you browsing the web using the cellular network.

    The same thing is going on when you plug your expensive AT&T cell card into your laptop. You are using the cell network to access the web.

    Wouldn’t it be great to get rid of that cell card for your laptop (and the monthly charges that go with it)? You can, by using your iphone as a replacement for that cell card. This is called tethering… You plug your iphone into your computer, enable tethering on the iphone, and your computer automatically senses the internet.

    So if you’re having problems with your at&t air card, this won’t be any better, right? Not necessarily. It’s my understanding that service tends to be way better on these iphone data connections for whatever reason.

    Now, of course, the big problem is that tethering is not allowed, because AT&T is afraid their network will be swamped. It’s supposed to be allowed in the coming months, but it’s not right now. So if you enable it on your phone (you have to type in some secret stuff to do it), you are violating your AT&T EULA. Now I haven’t heard of anyone getting in trouble for it yet, or even if there’s anyway for AT&T to tell, but you’ve been warned. For what it’s worth, tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of people are doing it…

    Also, this will be great for Oxford Missisippi and Sundance and SIFF, but internationally you better get your plan up to speed ahead of time if you don’t want more of those thousand dollar phone bills.

    Here’s a link on how to do it; it literally takes 30 seconds.

    http://www.crunchgear.com/2009/06/17/enable-tethering-in-iphone-30/

  • Rob Ross

    Can’t you buy a 3G stick and use that only when the wifi is spotty?

    Or go into a store/restaurant that has locked wifi, slip the manager a 5er and have him enter the password into your laptop.

    Think creatively! Us Canadians are pretty cool people if you ask politely.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    I would love to be able to buy a 3G stick with a flat-rate fee for 14 days of usage…something like that. You can go into any town or country, after all, and buy a temporary cell phone with a flat-rate deal that allows you to make calls for 10 hours or 7 days or whatever. Pay and go and return the phone when you leave town — simple. Why then doesn’t someone in Toronto offer a deal like this with a plug-in USB card or stick that will give me wifi?

  • Rob Ross

    That’s a great point Jeff. You’d figure the person in charge of giving out press credentials would add a 14 day 3G stick to your package to allow press the power to post whenever and wherever.

    Anyways, I hope you enjoy Toronto this year and for the love of God don’t leave anything of value out for display while you go to the bathroom.

  • Jen Bell

    Hi Jeffrey – Thought you might be interested to learn that TIFF is thrilled to be hosting a media lounge on the sundeck of the Sutton this year – complete with complimentary wifi access!

    Its been something we’ve been working on securing for a few years now and are so pleased that we’re going to be able to give you a central (and reliable) location to file from.

    See you next week!

  • digitalhit

    Jeff,

    The Timothy’s coffee shop one floor down from the Varsity has free wifi I think. Was there a few weeks ago with a friend.

    The photogs would love wifi so they can file from the carpets. Considering Bell is the main sponsor…

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