Unwired Singapore

Wireless@SG is the Singaporean initiative to deploy island-wide wireless access for citizens and for the time being it's free. Singapore is now the second nation in Asia after Taipei to possess an anytime, anywhere wireless broadband service.

by / February 1, 2007

Nancy, a teacher in a primary school in Singapore, always thought David, a student in her class, was the brightest. Last week, however, Nancy almost wished that this wasn't the case. On a class field trip to the Singapore Zoo, David wanted to know why rhinos are called rhinoceros. Nancy was almost at loss for words. But thanks to Singapore's just-launched Wireless@SG, it took Nancy just a moment of Internet search with her personal digital assistant to have the answer.

With a mindset that if its good enough for Taipei, then there is no reason Singapore should be left behind, Wireless@SG is the Singaporean initiative to bring citywide (island-wide in Singapore's case) wireless to everyone. With its launch in December 2006, a month ahead of schedule, Singapore is now the second nation in Asia after Taipei, to possess an anytime-anywhere-wireless broadband service.

Actually right now, anytime-anywhere accessibility is perhaps not the right word to use. While most of the high traffic areas such as central Singapore, its business districts, important tourist spots -- the Zoo included -- and even the beach is covered, the whole island is not as yet. "The Wireless program went live in December 2006 with over 600 hot spots in operation," said Ka Wei HO, spokesperson of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), its information technology master-planner and developer. "The plan is to have 5,000 hot spots by September 2007." That is when Wireless@SG can claim that it covers the whole of Singapore.

The concept of Wireless@SG was the brainchild of IDA and is a part of Singapore's plan to develop a Next Generation National Infocomm Infrastructure, which also includes the development of an ultra-high speed network. According to IDA, Wireless@SG "forms a critical component" of Singapore's new master plan dubbed Intelligent Nation 2015 (iN2015). The plan, launched in June 2006, is Singapore's blueprint to help the nation realize the potential of Infocomm and transform Singapore into "An Intelligent Nation, a Global City, powered by Infocomm" by 2015.

Wireless@SG follows a private-public partnership model. It was conceived and developed by the IDA, a government enterprise, but it is run by the private sector. In October 2006, to kick-start deployment of the project, IDA awarded implementation contracts to the three private telecom companies -- iCELL Network Pte Ltd., QMAX Communications and Singapore Telecommunications.

Tiered Service
While the basic tier of 512 Kbps is offered free to encourage adoption, the three operators are also offering premium services for a fee. These include such things as premium content, bundled video conferencing, VoIP and streaming video applications, online gaming and location-based services. The three operators will be investing about Singapore $100 million over the next two years to deploy Wireless@SG and the IDA will bear about S$30 million of the deployment costs.

The free unlimited use will last three years. SingTel and iCell Network are not willing to comment on what will happen thereafter. However, QMax Communications -- the third operator -- at this point has not committed to offering free Internet access beyond a two-year period. "It will depend on the market environment at that stage, as well as what the other operators are offering then," says Qmax director Alex Tan.

But even if basic service ceases to be free after the initial launch period, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on the day of the launch that "after the free years, it is expected that access will still remain highly affordable."

Kevin Lim, an erstwhile Singaporean but now a student at the University of Buffalo for the last six years, checking out Wireless@SG on his recent trip to the city. It is "Wireless and loving it" he says. "Not really island-wide, but free is still good."

According to SingTel, a notable feature of the technology used in the project is the use of a Wi-Fi mesh network, doing away with the need for a physical connection to each access point. The network also uses an adaptive wireless path protocol, which is a mathematical algorithm that decides the optimal ways to route traffic from access point to access point and back to the main wired network. The protocol avoids traffic congestion and allows, "self-healing", says SingTel.

IDA says that Wireless@SG is a leap towards the "Always Connected" paradigm, something that will provide a significant competitive advantage for Singapore. The agency hopes that this "will impact the way Singapore residents live, work, learn and play."

Security Concerns
But not everybody -- the business community especially -- is happy with the service. According to David J. Nishball senior vice-president, Asia Pacific, Orange Business Services, the biggest drawback of this project is that it lacks security. "Free Wi-Fi by itself will not dramatically change the way business is conducted, because the bandwidth itself is not the most critical factor," he says. "A business solution must discern real access points from spoofed ones, or else unsuspecting users may end up passing all their traffic through a hacker's PC on the way to the Internet. And it must provide for secure tunnels to the company Intranet and this requires additional software to be deployed on PCs. On-going security compliance and audits must also be a part of any effective business solution."

Therefore, "although passwords could provide some protection," added Victor Liu, industry analyst of In-Stat, a market research firm, "anyone handling sensitive information may be hesitant to log onto the public network."

Others say that since Wireless@SG is a Wi-Fi service, and not WiMax, it has limitations. There are also concerns that the service will not remain cutting edge because High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSPDA) -- the high-speed cellular-based wireless broadband technology -- is expected to hit Singapore next year. Critics of the project say the biggest benefit of HSPDA over Wi-Fi is that it makes use of the mobile phone networks, and unlike Wi-Fi, it can assure wide area -- perhaps almost island-wide coverage -- with much better handover (shift from one network to another) capability.

Some are also skeptical about this project's ability to bridge the "digital divide" -- something the Prime Minister considers key -- as the network is designed to cover public areas but may not provide adequate access from homes.

Long-distance telephony operators like StarHub and MobileOne are also unhappy because they fear that some of the value-added services, such as VoIP and video content, may lure current subscribers to the Wi-Fi network.

Nevertheless, Ka Wei HO of IDA insists that this project brings immense benefits to the residents of Singapore. "In addition to extending the broadband network beyond the confines of homes, offices and schools, more infocomm services can be delivered pervasively and this creates opportunities for new innovative products and services to be offered to the people," she says.

Citing examples, Ka Wei suggests that with wireless mobility, salespersons and financial planners can submit electronic documents while meeting with clients in public areas, such as shopping centers and restaurants. The network will allow new telecommunication services such as voice-over-IP calls over mobile phones. Students on field trips will be able to share findings and work collaboratively with classmates who remain at school. And of particular importance, as far as she is concerned, the Government can make use of the wireless network to improve operational efficiency and service delivery through such things as public safety notification, incident management, regulation enforcement, and traffic management.

"There's no doubt that Wireless@SG users will be able to enrich their lives," she said.