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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6 Comments

  1. Singaporean says:

    The problem with Wireless@SG is that the service is not reliable.

    And because it is a free service, the service providers offer virtually no end-user support, if at all. From my own experience, SingNet is the worst culprit in this respect, followed by iCELLwireless. Singnet does not even offer a dedicated hotline to report Wireless@SG problems, unlike the other two operators.

    M1 gives the most responsive end-user technical support among the three Wireless@SG operators. M1 is also the most responsive when it comes to resolving complaints of Wireless@SG hotspots not working. M1 support engineers will even follow up and call you back to tell you that they have already repaired the Wireless@SG hotspot that you complained was not working!

    M1 provides the best Wireless@SG end-user support among the three operators.

    On the other hand, SingNet is not even interested to hear from you as a end-user of Wireless@SG, since you are not a paid customer of theirs. SingNet’s way of handling complaints about Wireless@SG hotspots not working, is to ask you to tell the shop premise owner, or building management where the Wireless@SG  router is located, to lodge a formal complaint to SingNet directly, ONLY THEN will SingNet look into the compliant. I don’t know what kind of stupid policy that is…

    The most common problem with Wireless@SG is that the operators are not competent enough to diagnose the problem of why a particular hotspot is not working. And when the problem is indeed on their end, they are very slow to rectify it or repair the hotspot. Many times, I have encountered hotspots that have been down for up to three to four weeks, or even longer! I am not joking, it’s true.

    I am technically-inclined person, and I usually know far more about why the hotspot is down than the person I am talking to on the phone to complain about a hotspot that is not working.

    The problem with Wireless@SG is that it is not robust at all. I have often encountered server errors, leading to no log-in page appearing, or an improperly configured network server, or certificate errors, or worse, Wi-Fi interference from someone else’s Wi-Fi equipment that is blanketing the whole hotspot with their high-powered Wi-Fi signal and preventing ANYONE from connecting to that particular Wireless@SG hotspot. This last problem is a very serious one and is increasingly very widespread nowadays compared to two or three years ago.

    The most pressing thing that needs to be done now, is for all the operators to improve on your customer service response to all Wireless@Sg complaints. Treat them with urgency and don’t ignore users. Be more responsive and make sure that you have staff manning the Wireless@Sg hotlines at all times during office hours. As for SingNet, you guys better pull up your socks and setup a dedicated Wireless@SG hotline. Don’t make Wireless@SG users jump through hoops just to report a problem to you.

  2. AK Teo says:

    I think this free wifi has got lots of related economy going like sales of notebooks, smartphone and others. This is also a mean for encouraging our older Singapore to be engaged in IT. You can see lots of uncles and aunties on the smartphones and is a good evident. So I shall ask IDA to continue this free wifi as a basic solution and let the telco to compete the premium services after 2013. We want to see a generation of IT savvy population and this is what IDA can help.

  3. Chi-Loong says:

    Sorta take Wireless@SG for granted liaoz. It’s been free for long enough that I forget it’s only supposed to be a three year thing.

    I’m sure all of us have our experiences sitting in macs or at Starbucks looking for the nearest Wireless@SG hotspot to connect to.

    Well, this is definitely good news for us users!

  4. limbeer says:

    Good news indeed. Wireless@SG is one of the projects that our regulator has gotten right and props to them for being ahead on this. The Hong Kong government’s gotten on the free wifi bandwagon quite a bit later with their “GovWifi” program and coverage while being beefed up, isn’t quite as extensive. But HK’s a bigger place.

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