Zit Seng's Blog

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Wireless@SG Doomed to Fail

Cisco Wireless Access PointSo I was at BPP this morning having breakfast, and I thought I’d login to Wireless@SG hoping to get some work done. The Wi-Fi signal was weak, and after finding my SSH connection getting stuck repeatedly, I eventually gave up. It made me think, again, how Wireless@SG is doomed to fail.

In case you didn’t know, Municipal Wi-Fi (i.e. city-wide Wi-Fi like what Singapore is doing) has failed in many cities in the US. Projects such as those in San Francisco, Houston, and St Louis are in trouble. Previously announced deployments in Chicago, Cincinnati, Anchorage and Alaska have been canceled.

Even developments in small cities, such as Springfield, Illinois, are being canceled. USA Today article Cities turning off plans for Wi-Fi reasons that Municipal Wi-Fi plans are too expensive and too complicated, and John McKinley explains in Why we will never see municipal WiFi succeed in the US a couple of reasons why they are doomed to failure.

To be fair, there are a few successes with Municipal Wi-Fi in the US. Municipal Wi-Fi Thrives mentions St Cloud. These are, however, rare. The other “success” cases are those where the Wi-Fi network is essentially used by Police, Fire, and other public workers to carry out their work.

For users, the biggest challenge with Wireless@SG is that it is not everywhere. Instead of being able to turn on your notebook or PDA and expect to be instantly hooked up wirelessly, you’d find yourself having to seek out coverage areas. Does anyone remember SingTel’s Call Zone service from the 1990s? How useful is a “mobile phone” if you have to seek out a Call Zone coverage area? (And the joke about Call Zone is that by the time you find your Call Zone signal, you would already have found a public phone as well.)

I can understand that 802.11 Wi-Fi coverage is not easy. You really need a tremendous number of access points. We have 1000 access points in my work place. Wireless@SG will have 5000 covering Singapore. My office is definitely much smaller than one-fifth the size of Singapore. But despite the sheer density of access points, we still do not have 100% coverage in my work place. Users still complain about blind spots. How will Wireless@SG work with 5000 access points? They probably need 500K.

Then of course, the operators will go broke trying to deploy that number of access points. Not to mention also the logistics and management nightmare coping with all those access points. Will 802.11n make any difference?

What will become of Wireless@SG once they stop offering free access? Sure they have users now since access is free. People love free things. People will go out of their way to get free things, including finding the coverage area. But once you make it a paid service, these users would start to consider alternatives. Today, we have 3G offering truly pervasive mobile broadband access. Tomorrow, well, we’re awaiting Wimax and whatever 4G will have in store for us.

3G is great. In fact, I had previously posted about the fun with 3G that I was having. 3G isn’t quite as fast as Wi-Fi, but at least it is readily available everywhere and a lot more reliable than Wi-Fi. In fact, just to amuse myself, when I see others around me struggling with their wireless access, I would turn on my 3G and web surf. Once, a fellow (who presumably was having Wireless@SG problems) at McDonald’s saw me web surfing, came over to ask if there was wireless access. I said “Yes, but not Wi-Fi.” 😛

If I had to choose between paying for a 3G data plan or Wireless@SG plan, I cannot see how I would end up with Wireless@SG.

Now, I assume IDA folks do follow developments around the world and they are aware how municipal Wi-Fi is floundering elsewhere. Where do they see Wireless@SG headed?

12 thoughts on “Wireless@SG Doomed to Fail

  1. Hmm… For the US, one of the main reasons for failure of municipal Wifi was the lobbying by the telcos against it. While the debate of the effect of this can go on indefinately, it surely seems like a more compelling reason than municipal Wifi being too complex (There are many 3rd party “fire-and-forget” solutions for municipal Wi-Fi infrastructure).

    As for Singapore, I will agree that the current deployment is, at best, pathetic. Speeds are low and coverage is not great. And 802.11n probably wouldn’t help since most probably the speed is limited by the backend, and not the access points.

    But I won’t conclude that Wireless@SG is doomed to fail. I guess it’s still useful for just quick email check and simple browsing.. And the coverage in the ‘City’ area is adequate..

    But when Wireless@SG goes paid, I do hope that it is much cheaper than 3/4G alternatives, else it might really be the doom.

  2. Yes, we have quite dense wireless coverage in NUS. Average sized building could have 30 APs. Multiply that across campus. 🙂

  3. Wow… you got 1000 access point at your workplace? Where are you working at?

    I guess the biggest problem with wireless@sg is not that they didn’t cover the entire Singapore. I feel that it is the stability of the network that is giving problem. I lost count of the number of times when I get disconnected from wireless@sg.

  4. Well, it was rolled up very quickly after the PM announced it in a talk — in 6 mth! Reminiscent of the speed of China setting up a full-fledged SARS ready hospital — so when there is a will (of someone high up typically in Asia — yawn++), there will be a (swift) way. It doesn’t really matter whether it works or not, for the high-ups are supposed to be clever and mature to stomach failures. Here you are — a demonstration of the efficiency of the Singapore government. Now don’t imagine too many things as to why drew the China example in comparison. 😉

  5. I think it’s too early to conclude that Wireless@SG is doomed to fail. So far, I do not have any problems with Wireless@SG. Speeds are slow but good enough to surf the net, and I don’t think it is meant for downloading stuff at high speed. Regarding the coverage, having access points at major areas like Raffles Place, Vivocity, Orchard Road, etc are good enough as those are places with high traffic and more tendency for people to want to surf the net everywhere. However, installing access points everywhere, including HDB areas, not-so-important places might be quite redundant.

  6. I so totally with you on Wireless@SG. In fact I did a coverage at my site when it first launched.

    I think it will be one of the failed project we have and then rebranded into something else.

  7. It has been (almost) a year, do you still feel the same about W@SG?

    Agree that 3G is pervasive, and therefore definitely trump W@SG in its current state. Imho, as W@SG is a free thing, I don’t think there would be a business case to do a pervasive coverage (how much ads can you see!!). Maybe what really make sense is somewhat an automatic switch (like what my iPhone has been doing) where if it finds Wi-Fi it’ll do that, otherwise 3G, otherwise GPRS etc. without any user intervention.

  8. I am still not very hopeful with Wireless@SG. Since I wrote the post almost 1 year ago, I must say that Wireless@SG coverage has become better. The chances of getting successfully logged in, and really being able to surf the net, is definitely better.

    However, at the same time, 3G speeds have gone up, and the cost of 3G data has dropped with the healthy competition between the 3 telcos.

    So I feel to have ubiquitous wireless data access, 3G is still the way to go. Wireless@SG may work better for specialized coverage at well publicized designated areas. E.g., let’s say “throughout the Formula 1 race track areas”. That’s where people know in advance, and can plan to take advantage of Wireless@SG. Now, that’s when Wireless@SG is free. When it is not free… its main customers are probably going to be those without a 3G data plan (including overseas travelers to Singapore).

  9. i drop connection all the time, ap setup is different in different locations
    starhub’s access points are much more stable but u have to be a starhub customer

  10. i also got disconnected several time after login even though the AP is at full strength. I’m using a wi-fi phone, is this a common problem. Anyone has any idea what happened?
    Is the problem with the ISP or my phone

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