Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wireless Utopia?

Taipei is leading the way in going wireless -- and in wireless hype
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, March 6, 2006

Taipei is dreaming big: it wants to be the world's first completely wireless metropolis. Other cities boast a patchwork of hotspots at hotels, coffee shops and colleges, and tiny towns in the United States and elsewhere have already been blanketed with anywhere, anytime Wi-Fi. But the Taiwanese capital (population: 2.6 million) is on track to become the first major world city to attain geek nirvana. Its ambitious Wifly project will stretch a single wireless network over the city's 272 square kilometers. Beginning in 2003, the city has so far installed 2,400 access points in the central part of town. If all goes well, by the end of June, 5,000 access points will provide a seamless network available outdoors and in, covering some 90 percent of Taipei. In a year, that number is expected to double to 10,000.

Taipei won't stay at the top for long. Philadelphia, San Francisco and a 3,800-square-kilometer patch of Silicon Valley have Wi-Fi projects in the works. So do Bangalore and cities in the U.K., Sweden, Germany and Spain.

Beyond bragging rights, what do these cities expect to gain by blanketing their environs with Wi-Fi networks? Proponents point to a bevy of new services. Sheng Chang, vice president of Q-Ware, which is spending $93 million on Taipei's network, says customers can now move around the city but stay connected to one network, with one password—rather than have to hop between hotspots on different networks. For $12 a month, a Taipei resident can tote a laptop computer to the park and watch cable TV. Or he can print documents and photos while riding the subway or chowing at a noodle stand. "We're going to change people's lives in Taipei city," says Chang.

Wi-Fi has some tough competition. Cell phones already do a pretty good job of keeping people connected, and the latest 3G models boast a range of multimedia bells and whistles. Reliable broadband is widely used already in Taipei (by more than 60 percent of the population), and few people will want to chuck that for a wireless service that's still patchy in places. Sam Lucero, senior analyst of wireless connectivity research at ABI Research, questions whether the benefits of Wi-Fi will be enough to get people to use it. "How often are you wandering around outside needing Wi-Fi access?" he says. "Typically, if you need it, you're going to be in a place that has a hotspot anyway."

The real beneficiaries may not be the average citizen so much as municipalities, says Lucero. For instance, San Mateo, California's police have access to Wi-Fi on laptops in their squad cars and on PDAs on their bicycles and motorcycles. They can remotely gain access to databases and distribute photos of suspects via the network to every other cop on the grid. Police and fire inspectors in Granbury, Texas, can pull up a detailed 3-D map of all the properties and hydrants in the county.

There's no reason such systems couldn't be adopted by cities. In Taipei, police are now experimenting with using the networks to stay in touch with headquarters, rather than keeping paper-and-pen logs, Chang says. The city has also hooked up traffic-monitoring devices to Wifly, so they can transmit traffic-flow data to a central database. Taipei wants to use Wifly to make all kinds of city services more convenient to residents. "It's much more of an incremental impact on people's lives than a paradigm shift such as the introduction of e-mail," Lucero says. Citywide Wi-Fi may not quite live up to its hype, but it's pretty cool all the same.

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