Monday, June 26, 2006

On Wifly

My father sent me the link to this NY Times story on Taipei's wireless network, which its city officials refer to proudly as Wifly. The lead is right there in the title: What if They Built an Urban Wireless Network and Hardly Anyone Used It?, by Ken Belson:
Despite WiFly's ubiquity — with 4,100 hot spot access points reaching 90 percent of the population — just 40,000 of Taipei's 2.6 million residents have agreed to pay for the service since January. Q-Ware, the local Internet provider that built and runs the network, once expected to have 250,000 subscribers by the end of the year, but it has lowered that target to 200,000.

That such a vast and reasonably priced wireless network has attracted so few users in an otherwise tech-hungry metropolis should give pause to civic leaders in Chicago, Philadelphia and dozens of other American cities that are building wireless networks of their own.

Like Taipei, these cities hope to use their new networks to help less affluent people get online and to make their cities more business-friendly. Yet as Taipei has found out, just building a citywide network does not guarantee that people will use it. Most people already have plenty of access to the Internet in their offices and at home, while wireless data services let them get online anywhere using phones, laptops and P.D.A.'s.
I have noticed this since my initial amazement at the rhetoric of this first wireless city in the world. While I go on-line quite often in the Metro station and in cafes that use Wifly, for the most part I have been the only person using my computer in and around the stations. The one exception was another foreigner I saw on the next car crouched down with his computer balanced on his arm.

One issue, as the author points out, is that people can access the internet at home, in cafes, and at their places of work and study. However, besides one's work-space, the opportunities for free internet are few and far between, and my experience of internet in American cities is that they are even rarer.

Yes, wireless is free at Doutor, Mr. Brown, New York Coffee, and some others, but many of the cafes and fastfood joints like Starbucks are signed up with Wifly. This means you can use the same 30-day wireless card in Starbucks and other cafes, as well as in and around the Metro stations.

One factor contradicting the city's plan for ubiquitous access is that this card doesn't work in all cafes and fastfood joints. The places where you can't use it include: MacDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, several cafe chains whose names I can't remember now, 101 (the tallest building in the world), etc.

These places all use Hinet, which is the service provided by Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan's largest Telecom company. That means you have to buy a separate card at these places.

Moreover, the majority of people who have laptops are already paying for broadband in their homes at much cheaper prices than most deals in the States. So, the city is basically asking people to pay again for wireless service. The two together is still probably cheaper than what I was paying in Philadelphia.

With all this said, I still love Wifly, and the internet mobility it makes possible. In some ways the phenomenon is still emerging; it is still too early to jump to conclusions about its success or failure. Give it time to blossom or decay.

Finally, the article mentions Taipei mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, and until someone shows me otherwise, for this I will give him credit:
The brainchild of Taipei's mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, the CyberCity project was first conceived in 1998 as a way to catapult past Seoul, Hong Kong and other Asian capitals that were recasting themselves as cities of the future. Many government agencies now communicate almost exclusively online, saving millions of dollars, and citizens have been given hundreds of thousands of free e-mail accounts and computer lessons.
I still believe the recall is a bad political move, but that doesn't change my view of Wifly.


Blogger Charlie said...

hehhe I also love free wireless :D

I think you can still use the HiNet network for free, but you have to use the same account and password that they provide in the internet service ... well at least if you have HiNet.

See You

1:37 AM  
Blogger Battlepanda said...

I think that they really should just go the whole hog and make it free. Since it is a public project and presumably consumed a lot of public money to build, the emphasis should really be on maximizing utility rather than maximizing profits.

2:09 AM  
Blogger Wulingren said...

I totally agree with you, Angelica, and if my memory serves me correctly, I think it was free for awhile. I believe the company in question is Uni-President, which owns everything (well, not everything but a lot); I don't think they'll be hurting from the momentary loss of profit. Someone told me they even own the Starbucks in the Forbidden City in Beijing. I'll have to confirm this. Charlie, I don't use Hinet, but I think you can use Hinet anywhere with Hinet service if you are a Hinet home user, which is a further block to Wifly. Why buy a Wifly card if you already have a Hinet card, just to go on-line in the Metro and Starbucks.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Wulingren said...

I don't think you can use a Hinet card in Wifly places.

8:36 AM  

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