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Gadgets & Home Improvement

Wi-Fi hot spots not really so hot

For five years, as a freelance tech writer, I ran from meeting to meeting, trying to get work done in between. I took that break from full-time journalism to have more flexi-hours to care for my kids.
The Straits Times - March 18, 2013
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Wi-Fi hot spots not really so hot

Wireless@SG, the nationwide free Wi-Fi service, would prove to be a godsend for me because trying to get online via a 2.5G mobile data connection was a pain in the neck. Something as simple as checking e-mail on the move was a really big deal for road warriors like me then, as I had to respond to my clients promptly.

I started freelancing in 2002, five years before there was Wireless@SG. Then, I had to hunt for public Wi-Fi hot spots to get work done during my breaks. I remember paying $10 a month to StarHub to use its Wi-Fi hot spots at about 100 locations including Suntec City, and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf outlets.

So when Wireless@SG was launched in 2007, I was among the first to jump on board. It has, unfortunately, not been a smooth ride for the service. Over the years, complaints about slow speeds and complex log-in processes have mounted. And, while it is easy to find a Wireless@SG hot spot in shopping malls and the business district, it is tough to get connected at places such as parks and beaches.

Things are very different now. The rise of 3G, and now 4G mobile broadband, has made public Wi-Fi less relevant than before.

Today, I am not just checking e-mail on my phone, iPad and laptop. I am also checking my Facebook account, using WhatsApp and surfing the Net without the need for free Wi-Fi. Mobile broadband is ubiquitous and more reliable, and the average speeds of superfast 4G are zippier than that of Wireless@SG's.

Unlike in the mid-2000s when mobile data cost a bomb, most mobile phone plans now come bundled with 2GB of data each month. In my case, I refused to sign a new contract when the telcos limited their data bundles, and so I have kept my original 12GB of free data every month.

Last week, the Government announced that speeds of free Wi-Fi would soon be "doubled" from 1Mbps to 2Mbps. But does the national Wi-Fi service still have a role to play?

For those who just need Internet on the move for checking e-mail and sending documents, the monthly 2GB bundle is more than enough. And with most modern smartphones now able to act as mobile hot spots, users can now connect their laptops and tablets to the Internet by tethering them to their smartphones, which are de facto mobile modems.

You can even pay an extra $5 to $10 a month to get a second SIM card for your laptop or tablet and use it to share your mobile phone's data plan.

Public hot spots are definitely less relevant than before, but they still have their uses for people, such as insurance agents and freelance writers, who need to get work done while on the move. One problem with tethering is that it drains a phone's battery. And with the recent mobile data cuts from 12GB to 2GB, heavy users will often turn to Wireless@SG to avoid using up their monthly 3G data quotas.

The upcoming speed boost to 2Mbps looks good on paper, but any tech-savvy user can tell you it is actual throughput that counts. There is no point in giving users a fat connection between the device and the wireless router when the back-end connection to the Internet remains flimsy. And for service providers to justify increasing the back haul, they need to be able to make money from providing "free" Wi-Fi to the masses.

That, unfortunately, has remained the bugbear of Wireless@SG. In the early years, the service providers received funds from the Government to roll it out as a free public service, and the business model was to make money by offering a faster premium service. No service provider will provide the numbers but I am pretty sure the number of premium consumers is dismal.

Perhaps the future may lie in what is called "Wi-Fi offloading", where telcos try to siphon off traffic on their high-cost mobile broadband 3G/4G networks to cheaper Wi-Fi networks to carry some of the mobile broadband traffic. Perhaps.

But, in the end, it will still be a matter of dollars and commercial sense.


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