Fewer Wireless@SG hotspots, so what?

October 8th, 2013 | by Alfred Siew

You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone, as the song goes.

That, perhaps, accounts for the reaction to news that the number of free Wireless@SG hotspots has been quietly reduced. It’s a surprising reaction given the brickbats hurled at the free Wi-Fi service since it went online at cafes and shopping malls in 2006.

It’s too slow, too difficult to hook on to and often just not working, detractors said. They would rather pay for something that worked, like more expensive 3G or 4G services, than a free service that doesn’t, they said.

The number of hotspots has fallen from 7,500 to 5,200 across Singapore over this year, according to a Straits Times scoop.

What’s unclear is why. The story seems to suggest that this is because the government has stopped funding the deployment of such hotspots this year.

Yet, the Infocomm Development Authority is also quoted, pretty deep in the article, that this was largely due to the exit of a wireless operator in July.

A new operator has stepped in to take over this year, but it isn’t clear if it will make up the numbers “lost” so far.

What is clear is that the government will stop paying for the rollout of future hotspots. It will continue to pay for enhancements, for example, to make the hotspots easier to log in to, but from now on, operators can decide to shut down or keep existing hotspots.

Is it money down the drain? To be fair, the government funding was never going to last forever. The first $30 million that got things rolling was to kick start the rollout, after which operators have to find their own revenues to keep things running.

Should the government continue to fund a project that has provided competition all these years? Going by the response to the news, it seems so.

Letters in the newspapers and comments in forums have been published, calling on the government to stop the telecom operators from cutting back. Among the 2.26 million subscribers on Wireless@SG last December, many probably still rely on it for surfing the Web while at the library, a café or the airport.

It’s true that Wireless@SG has served its purpose of introducing Internet on-the-go to the masses, ushering mobile data services to the cellphone and tablet. But it’s not time yet for the government to let go of it totally.

In the past year, 3G and 4G services have become more costly to many users, because telcos have cut the amount of free data given out as part of their monthly subscription plans.

In June last year, SingTel cut the amount of free data on many of its plans from 12GB to a paltry 2GB. StarHub and M1 followed shortly.

Without a free hotspot service, there is little incentive for the Big Three telcos – SingTel, StarHub and M1 – to fight hard for customers. By allowing telcos to decide what to do with their hotspots, the government regulator risks undoing what Wireless@SG brought all these years ago – competition.

The telcos had to drop prices and raise free data usage limits to compete with free wifi services. Will these same telcos – which form three of the four current Wireless@SG operators – find it more profitable to cut back on free hotspots to boost their 3G or 4G sign-ups now?

Well, there’s nothing to stop them.

It’s not just the telcos that will be happy with fewer hotspots. Hotels, long-time opponents of free wireless signals spilling into their premises, won’t wait to charge guests more for going online. For tourists and business travellers, that additional cost of staying in Singapore might well prompt them to stay away.

The hope is that a new Wireless@SG operator that joined the fray this year, Y5Zone from Hong Kong, will step up with new hotspots.

Understandably though, with no government funding, there is no rush to deploy. That’s bad news for consumers, even if you don’t think much of Wireless@SG.

Should 3G and 4G data plans continue to cost more in future, or when cellular networks get clogged up, as they already do now at times, there may not be a free service that can provide that bit of competition to shake things up.

This article first appeared on the Breakfast Network website.

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