There’s nothing like a free lunch. But once in a while, you do get freebies without so much as firing up your laptop.
From today, users of Singapore’s Wireless@SG service will be getting a speed boost, as part of a handful of upgrades for the free Wi-Fi hotspot offering that were first announced at CommunicAsia 2009.
They will be able to surf at up to 1Mbps (instead of 512Mbps) at 7,500 hotspots islandwide. There is no need to re-configure their laptops or Wi-Fi-enabled cellphones, said the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) this morning, as it showed Techgoondu and other media a demo of the faster service at the Wi-Fi-enabled TCC cafe at NAFA.
For folks unfamiliar with Singapore, Wireless@SG is an islandwide Wi-Fi service first rolled out in 2006 that has transformed the telecoms sector here. It has brought in much competition for both wired and wireless broadband services, while pushing the adoption of 3.5G services by giving users a taste of wireless surfing on the go.
In June 2009, as the first three years of the government-funded free service came to an end, the IDA extended the free usage for another four years – to 2013. It also said there will be enhancements such as seamless login – an answer to the many problems users have faced trying to get online on-site.
Come next year, users will only need to log in once to have their profiles stored on the network, so they don’t have to type in the password whenever they turn up at a hotspot. Called SSA (Seamless and Secure Access), this will work with popular laptops (Windows Vista and XP) and phones (Windows Mobile, iPhone, Symbian).
This also means users who keep getting logged out and re-logged in when two Wireless@SG hotspots converge – say, at a shopping mall – won’t face as much disruption. They will still be logged off – and on – but if they are just surfing the Net, they won’t know that this has happened because they won’t have to type in their passwords again.
Not the perfect solution, but it’s an improvement.
And what about bandwidth? At least at the demo today, the results look impressive. A Web-based videoconference to Hong Kong was smooth on a Wi-Fi laptop, for example. And a test at Speedtest.sg showed around 1Mbps on the fancy bandwidth meter.
Okay, so do we need the bandwidth? I think many people will just surf the Web or read their mail while sitting at a cafe, for example. But increasingly, says IDA, youths will be uploading pictures as well as watching YouTube videos, so yes, there will be some users maxing things out. Too much bandwidth never hurts anyway.
However, to make things viable, IDA is hoping that more companies will use the public infrastructure for, say, wireless points of sale (at trade fairs, for example), or remote video surveillance. This, adds the IDA, would make the network self-sustainable in future without any government grants.
Currently, the three Wireless@SG operators – SingTel, QMax Communications and iCell Network – run their networks with help from public funds.
But the good news is that the free Wi-Fi service could be “self-sustainable” in future. iCell Network, for example, says it is a “very viable” business. CEO Ken Chua, for example, has been signing up owners of shopping centres who pay to wirelessly-enable their premises.
That is a good sign. Beyond the 1.3 million subscribers that Wireless@SG is claimed to have, the measure of its success is how long it remains free. In that, Singapore’s municipal Wi-Fi service has done well, proving to be the exception to many cities which have tried and failed with free Wi-Fi.
Another reason for optimism: Singapore’s next-gen broadband network coming online soon. Built with strict pro-competition rules, it is expected to provide an open market for bandwidth prices, letting small players such as Qala and iCell procure their backhaul connections – the most costly item on the Wireless@SG bill – more cheaply.
With this speed boost, it’s clear there is more life yet in Wireless@SG.