Commentary: Free Wi-Fi extended to 2013 in Singapore

June 16th, 2009 | by Alfred Siew

Singapore’s free islandwide Wi-Fi service will be extended for another four years, until 2013, in a move that will delight users who have enjoyed not just free surfing on the go, but increased competition in telecom services as a result of the free offering.

From September, users will also get a speed boost of up to 1Mbps (from the previous 512Kbps) and come January next year, they will enjoy a seamless log-in process – a welcome improvement to the countless users who have had problems logging in on-site.

Launched in December 2006, Wireless@SG covers cafes, libraries and other public places and has jumpstarted the previously stagnant broadband scene in Singapore, leading to cheaper and more varied services in the past three years.

The competition triggered meant that telecom operators had to push for faster speeds – up to 100Mbps now on StarHub’s cable modem service – and 3.5G-based offerings have also become cheaper – at about S$35 a month for an unlimited 7.2Mbps service.

There are now 7,500 Wireless@SG hotspots islandwide and 1.3 million subscribers.

The three operators running Wireless@SG, SingTel, iCell Network and QMax Communications, will continue running the hotspots, Singapore authorities said at the opening of the imbX show here at Singapore Expo. CommunicAsia is part of the imbX series of infocomm and media events here this week.

The three Wireless@SG operators had originally been given a three-year contract that runs until this year – as part of a S$30 million funding deal from the government regulator – to blanket the island with free Wi-Fi signals. When a free service is extended, it is obviously good news all round.

After all, the S$30 million used in the original three years have brought about competition in a market that was dominated by a SingTel-StarHub duopoly and tough to prise open with all manners of regulations.

The importance of Wireless@SG cannot be underestimated.

Yes, it still has problems, mostly to do with dropped connections, especially when, say, two Wireless@SG operators overlap their signals at a shopping mall. This is unlikely to change because the 2.4GHz band is unlicensed and prone to interference, the IDA acknowledged when asked by the Goondu here.

But in terms of changing the landscape, Wireless@SG is a telecom policy that has reaped real rewards.

Thanks to Wireless@SG, it is a common sight to see “uncles’ and “aunties” checking out their share prices at 24-hour McDonald’s outlets, as well as students congregating at public libraries to surf the Web and study.

It’s probably also a reason why netbooks have been snapped up at IT bazaars – buy a S$599 model and you instantly have e-mail on the go with Wireless@SG at a nearby cafe.

More importantly, as I wrote in The Straits Times late last year, Wireless@SG is the reason why a lot of people are plugging 3.5G mobile broadband USB sticks these days to their laptops.

If these 3.5G services are the “premium” or “commercial” on-the-go services, then Wireless@SG is surely the demo/tryout version, allowing users to get used to the idea of surfing on the go.

In that sense, you’d wish for Wireless@SG to go on for several more years – as long as there is a demand for free surfing on the go.

I’m sure the speed boost and seamless login will ensure that there will be more users coming onboard in future. In particular, the seamless login, which means you only need to register once and never have the trouble of typing in your username and password again, will bring in more phone users who have Wi-Fi in their palms.

All in, this is the best news from this morning’s show opening. After hearing how the Singapore government lavishes millions and millions on new projects all the time, it’s good to know they haven’t forgotten about this one and is coming back with improvements after feedback from users.

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