Building the Right Bubble

Building the Right Bubble

Some Asian municipalities have already installed "Wi-Fi bubbles" for citizens and visitors to enjoy free wireless Internet access citywide. Hong Kong, ever ready to compete, has taken the first steps towards building its own bubble. But what are the pitfalls?

Providing a metropolitan area with free Wi-Fi access is technologically and politically taxing. The benefits of improved municipal services and enhanced connectivity are desirable. But the problems of negotiating with governments and service providers, conducting proper site surveys and choosing vendors remain obstacles.

Some Asian municipalities have already installed "Wi-Fi bubbles" for citizens and visitors to enjoy free wireless Internet access citywide. Hong Kong, ever ready to compete, has taken the first steps towards building its own bubble. But what are the pitfalls?

"The government has a role in leading our society into the wireless age," said Hong Kong's Legislative Councillor for IT, Sin Chung Kai. Sin added that "considering the progress of our neighbours, I doubt we are on the fast track to becoming a wireless city. The Taipei government has created the largest Wi-Fi network in the world - it covers 90 percent of the municipal population. Singapore's citywide "Wireless@SG" project provides Singaporeans with 512Kbps free Wi-Fi access, while more demanding users can pay for premium services."

Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) claims the scheme, which debuted in December 2006, is already a success. "To date, more than 200,000 people have signed up for the service," said the IDA on its Web site. "The island-wide network has also expanded coverage from 600 hot spots to 1300 hot spots."

Taipei's city government began to promote their Cybercity Initiative in 1999. Now, there are approximately 5000 wireless access points (APs) within the city, which earned the 2006 Intelligent Community of the Year Award from the [Intelligent Community Forum]: a US-based nonprofit think tank that focuses on job creation and economic development in the broadband economy.

The HKSAR government plan

Deputy government chief information officer (CIO) Stephen Mak presented a Legislative Council paper to a meeting of the Information Technology and Broadcasting Panel in April 2007. The paper-on the provision of Wi-Fi facilities at government premises-can be accessed [here].

"While Wi-Fi services at the metropolitan level are provided by commercial service providers," said Mak, "the services are mainly provided at commercial premises." He said that over 1000 hot spots are currently providing commercial Wi-Fi services in Hong Kong.

Mak said the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government has a "vision to make broadband Internet access available to all citizens in Hong Kong, regardless of whether they are at home or on the move. Through our proposed Wi-Fi Program and in concert with other Wi-Fi initiatives in the private sector, we envisage that nearly ubiquitous access to the Internet will be progressively available to citizens in all built-up areas of Hong Kong."

"We propose . . . to install Wi-Fi facilities in around 350 government premises with high public patronage," said Mak, adding that such premises include "public libraries, key cultural and recreation centres, community halls, large parks, and government offices frequently visited by the public". The planned implementation schedule has the first installation slated for November 2007, with the entire implementation program planned to complete two years after funding approval.

Mak estimated the scheme's initial budget at $HK227.5 million from 2007-08 to 2009-10, with full-year recurrent expenditure from 2010-11 onwards estimated at $HK19.2 million.

"The installation of Wi-Fi facilities, implementation of Wi-Fi services as well as their ongoing operation will all be outsourced," said Mak, with the Office of the Chief Government CIO (OGCIO) centrally overseeing, coordinating and managing the scheme.

The possibilities

A unified municipal Wi-Fi system offers a range of possibilities that, particularly in the public sector, sound much like the promises of Web 1.0. To give one example: imagine Hong Kong firefighters rushing to the scene of a fire and able to access the building blueprints (including latest revisions, and a Google Earth image) on handhelds and laptops.

Among the new services promised by vendors are: new municipal and college services to help fuel economic development, lower operational costs, and improve public safety. Applications include wireless municipal surveillance cameras, remote water meter readings, wireless parking and traffic inspection, and wireless video and voice communications for municipal and college employees. Public safety officers and public works employees would be able to submit reports, respond to and generate service orders, and access e-mail from remote terminals or handhelds, using the same applications they work with at the office, freeing them to spend more time in the field.

In one case, a US police chief said he expects the online reporting and database applications will help regain at least an hour of field time per patrol officer per shift. Immediate wireless access to municipal databases could deliver police photographs, crime bulletins, and building floor plans to crime scene command and emergency response crews. Remote, pole-mounted digital surveillance cameras can stream real-time video from higher-crime areas, providing a cost-effective and visible crime deterrent. Public works engineers and road crews would have real-time access to the department's geographical information system - a database of digital maps illustrating water lines, roads, and other spatial features that can be updated in the field.

The problems

"You need a lot of APs to get a consistent experience," said Nathan Burley, analyst, Asia-Pacific, Ovum. Burley said that even dense Wi-Fi deployments like Seoul and Taipei still experience coverage problems. "What we're seeing is that they're still failing on key criteria: coverage indoors and user-experience generally - users experience dropouts and have to restart apps when they reach the next hot spot." Burley added that Korea Telecom is no longer investing in Wi-Fi, and "Taipei is not dissimilar".

The analyst was more positive on the new mesh approach: "The mesh approach means APs can be used as backhaul, and that enables some degree of mobility between APs," he said. "I'm sure that some of these new mesh solutions will make a difference, but Wi-Fi is not delivering at the moment. In Hong Kong, PCCW will have an aggressive Wi-Fi strategy, but will combine that with 3G (third generation). We'll see it with both handsets and wireless broadband data cards - they'll leverage each technology's strengths."

Burley said that PCCW has 3000 APs. "The [HKSAR] government's [proposed] 300 APs is practically nothing. The business model is unclear - will existing operators be able to leverage?"

In Singapore, said Burley, "SingTel is offering free Wi-Fi but we don't see it as cannibalization, we see it as opportunity. Even with hot spots everywhere, you won't have coverage everywhere, but you will with 3G. With handset users on the move, premium service of 1Mbps, and leveraging data, including VoIP calls and converged services, we think it's quite innovative."

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