Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Wireless networks in Taiwan

My friend the sculptor Joel Haas pointed out two recent articles in the NYTimes on wireless networks in Taiwan. The first:

What if They Built an Urban Wireless Network and Hardly Anyone Used It?
By Ken Belson

Peter Shyu, an engineer, spends most of his day out of the office, and when he needs an Internet connection he often pops into one of the many coffee shops in this city that offer free wireless access.

He could use WiFly, the extensive wireless network commissioned by the city government that is the cornerstone of Taipei's ambitious plan to turn itself into an international technology hub. But that would cost him $12.50 a month.

"I'm here because it's free, and if it's free elsewhere, I'll go there too," said Mr. Shyu, hunched over his I.B.M. laptop in an outlet of the Doutor coffee chain. "It's very easy to find free wireless connections."

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.

Like Q-Ware, operators in the United States, Europe and other parts of Asia are eager to build municipal networks. But they are grappling with the high expectations politicians are placing on them. On June 9, MobilePro backed out of plans to develop a wireless network in Sacramento because it said the city wanted it to offer free access and recoup its investment with advertising, not subscriptions, a model that other cities are hoping to adopt. Elsewhere, incumbent carriers have challenged cities' rights to requisition new networks. And many services have had difficulty attracting customers.

"There is a lot of hype about public access," said Craig J. Settles, a technology consultant in Oakland, Calif., and author of "Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless." "What's missing from a lot of these discussions is what people are willing to pay for."

Taipei garners much praise for its e-friendly environment, and Taiwan in general is one of the world's leaders in e-government. The constrast between the current medieval recall madness that the Blues are engaging in, and the efficiency of Taiwan's e-government, is staggering. The Taipei Cyber City effort is credited to Ma Ying-jeou in the article, and Ma is quoted as saying the problem with the wireless system is the business model. Belson also had another article in the NY Times that same day:

Taiwan' s Model for Electronics in Government

Taipei's WiFly network may be the most visible evidence of Taiwan's technological aspirations, but behind the scenes the government has been working since the 1990's on a far-reaching plan to use the Internet to make it faster and cheaper for bureaucrats to communicate among themselves and with citizens.

The rewards have been substantial. In 2005, 92 percent of businesses and 35 percent of individuals filed their taxes electronically, reducing paperwork and speeding up the payment of returns.

The island's government distributes about 100,000 documents online every working day, saving about $3 million in postage. Before, when the prime minister's office issued executive orders, it typically took up to a week to distribute them across the island. Now it takes about an hour.

By pooling the telecommunications services of all the ministries, the government saves about $70 million annually.

The government also accepts 15,000 online bids each month from companies seeking public contracts. Thousands of students and parents pay school tuition on the Internet, and citizens apply for drivers' licenses, property titles and a host of other certificates online.

To speed up delivery of these services, about one million citizens now have identification cards with chips inside that, when scanned, instantly provide personal data.

The cards, which cost about $8.50, have ID and PIN numbers for protection.

Hsieh Chang-yao, a manager at a clothing company, got his card at the local government office in the Xinyi district of Taipei so that, among other things, he could go online to get a household certificate, an important form of identification, instead of returning to his hometown outside Taipei.

"Since people in modern society are busy and not as flexible, we have to be able to communicate more online," he said.

The government's efforts have attracted notice. The Brown University Taubman Center for Public Policy put Taiwan at the top of its list of the world's most Internet-savvy governments.

Taiwan's goal has not just been to reduce paperwork and speed up services. It has used the Internet to tear down walls between ministries and increase transparency after years of authoritarian rule.

"The Internet is not just to get rid of regulations, but also to establish a mature democracy," said Yeh Jiunn-rong, the former minister of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission, which reviews the effectiveness of government projects and policies. "While we were doing government reform, it was a golden opportunity to do it right with e-government."

The e-government initiative is the project of the most important government agency that you've never heard of, the RDEC, the Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission of the Executive Yuan. During the mid-1990s it began layout the policy basis for not only the e-government initiatives, but also the quality service initiatives, that changed Taiwan's government so much beginning in the late 1990s. As an RDEC's publication notes:

To promote the widespread development of ICT applications, Taiwan established the NII Task Force in 1994. Then in 1997, the NII Promotion Program (1997 ~ 2001) was established for NII related strategies, measures, and implementation schedules. In 1998, the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission (RDEC) launched a three-year e-Government Action Plan, which highlighted the focus on Internet application development and relevant infrastructure establishment in government.

The article proudly notes:

In the surveys of the state of e-government in 198 nations published by Brown University, Taiwan was ranked first in 2002, 2004 and 2005. Meanwhile, in the Global Information Technology Report 2004-2005 published by the World Economic Forum, Taiwan was ranked third in Government Readiness and fifth in Government Usage. The surveys by Brown University primarily assessed the service content and functionality of government websites. Taiwan was one of the few nations worldwide that had actually used electronic certificates in e-government services.

UPDATE: Wulingren has also blogged on these articles.

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.


Eli said...

I also blogged about this yesterday, and provided some commentary based on my experience using Wifly. My father sent me the links.

Eli said...

Computerworld cobbles together some blogger reactions to Ken Belson's article on Wifly--yours included. I commented also on something that made me feel a little less than content.

Yin Chong said...

Hey I am from Singapore and came across your blog as I am researching about Wifi in Taiwan. There is one Singapore company that claims to be building wireless communications in Taiwan, Taichung specifically, and is providing astronomical returs.

Can I confirm with you that the city have already been turned into a wireless one and that the construction of the infrastructure have been completed few years back?

As I have friends who have invested heavily in this project and that I am currently residing in Singapore, there is no other means except to get people around that area to check it out for me.

Please provide me with any information if you have any.