The hotspot economy

Robert Clark
15 Oct 2007

With most of the world pronouncing the death of muni Wi-Fi, Hong Kong has shown that there's life yet in the hotspot economy with the deployment of 5,000 hotspots around the city.

Incredibly, it has done so under the astounding new concept of "commercial viability". Instead of the city government spending taxpayers' dollars on a grand promise of free broadband, the local operators are doing so because they see a business opportunity. Whoddathought‾

The government has mandated free Wi-Fi at the city airport and in 350 government office locations. The rest has been up to incumbent PCCW and its rivals. The fact that there is an average 1.7 hotspots for each of the 3,000 locations testifies to the power of competition.

The Singapore Wireless @SG program, while less hands-off, has also been successful in ensuring citywide Wi-Fi coverage.

Now it's true that neither of those high population density cities is a model for, say, LA or Auckland - suburban sprawl is simply not Wi-Fi territory. But low-cost, free-spectrum Wi-Fi is surely a perfect fit for any large developing country.

You'd think, China, for example, with several dozen cities with a population of more than a million, would seize the Wi-Fi opportunity to narrow its yawning digital divide.

But that would be reckoning without the unique genius of government policymakers. Why use an available low-cost standard that works when you can build your own at public expense‾

What you get is China's 3G champion, TD-SCDMA. At the first public outing of TD-SCDMA phones at a trade fair last week, demonstrators had trouble setting up video calls, while the picture quality was decidedly fuzzy. The rest of the world began deploying 3G six years ago. The first large-scale TD-SCDMA networks were due to go live this month, but predictably are late.

This pursuit of national vainglory ensures Olympic visitors next year won't enjoy low-cost Wi-Fi coverage. Unless they buy a TD-SCDMA phone, they won't even have access to 3G. Their only high-speed data option will be HSDPA - hardly the image of native hi-tech prowess the Olympics is meant to project.

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