Taipei gets world’s largest Wi-Fi grid

Dennis Tseng is an avid Web surfer who loves to hang out in Taipei’s upmarket Hsinyi district, where wireless Internet access is freely available to all. Whether he’s waiting outside a department store for his wife to finish shopping or enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon at an outdoor cafe, Tseng will whip out his electronic organizer to check his e-mail, make a doctor’s appointment or review movie listings.

It’s the love of this kind of connectivity that is driving Taipei city planners to build what they say will be the world’s biggest "Wi-Fi" network, making cheap, wireless Internet access available almost everywhere in the Taiwan capital.

"This will be a very ambitious venture for Taipei city because as far as we know, this is the only city that has tried to have a city-wide coverage of wireless service," Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou told Reuters.

While wireless connections are available in many homes, businesses and cafes around the world, Taipei’s CyberCity project aims to make Wi-Fi ubiquitous outdoors.

New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Jerusalem are among cities with similar ambitions and about a quarter of Amsterdam is already connected. But Taipei’s network is likely to be the world’s largest, said Robin Simpson, an Australia-based research director for Gartner Asia Pacific.

The Wi-Fi access points that will link computers to the Web in Taipei will be attached to traffic and street lights, creating a network that will cover 90 percent of the city by the end of 2005.

Quality of life

"We want to further globalize Taipei," said Chou Yun-tsai, a city government official driving the project. "The idea is to improve the quality of life for residents while making it easier to do business in Taipei."

The project will build on the network available in Hsinyi, an up-and-coming shopping and financial district that is home to the world’s tallest building, the 1,667-foot Taipei 101, and the city government headquarters.

The city-wide network will be built by Q-Ware Corp., a unit of the Uni-President group, which also holds the 7-Eleven franchise in Taiwan. Q-Ware will deploy at least 20,000 access points throughout Taipei at a cost of US$70 million.

The project has also attracted the interest of technology giants Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp., which are providing a combination of technical assistance and equipment.

Q-Ware will pay Taipei 1 percent of revenues in first 2 years of the agreement and 3 percent in the remaining 7 years.

"So we don’t have to pay a penny but we can get some royalties back and the city will become even more mobile and even more information-oriented," said Mayor Ma.

Q-ware is aiming for a basic monthly fee of T$150-T$400 (US$4.50-US$12), far less than the T$800-T$1,000 (US$24-US$30) that fixed-line broadband providers demand in Taiwan.

It expects to sign up a third of the city’s 3 million residents and break even within 5 years.

Poor track record

But the track record for large-scale Wi-Fi projects is iffy at best, say the experts.

Simpson said the technology that CyberCity plans to use operates in a very crowded bandwidth, which could interfere with other private networks and even home appliances such as baby monitors.

"Anybody who has an existing Wi-Fi network in Taipei is in danger of having their network blown away by the ubiquitous signal that is going to come from the citywide network," he said.

Besides the technical obstacles, there is also the question of who would actually use the service when 80 percent of Taipei residents already have access to the Internet and more than half have broadband.

"Wi-Fi revenue is a very unsure thing. Even in North America, not many people are making any money out of Wi-Fi," said Simpson.

Still, dedicated users like Tseng are enthusiastic.

"I like the idea of being able to connect easily anytime, anywhere. It’s not something I must have but it’s very convenient," he said. "It makes life easier and is fun."

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Taipei gets world’s largest Wi-Fi grid