Fewer free public Wi-Fi hot spots in Singapore

-- ST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ASHLEIGH SIM
-- ST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ASHLEIGH SIM

Telcos no longer get IDA funding for setting up Wireless@SG infrastructure

Shoppers and diners may no longer be able to access the free public Wi-Fi networks at some of their favourite malls.

This is because the number of free hot spots has dipped by a third over the past year as the Government discontinued its funding for the roll-out of Wireless@SG service locations.

Latest figures obtained by The Straits Times showed that the number of Wireless@SG hot spots has plunged from 7,500 across 2,300 locations to 5,200 across some 1,700 locations by August.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) said it has stripped all funding for "deployment and operations costs of Wireless@SG" hot spots, under the latest phase of the programme which began in April.

In a statement to The Straits Times, an IDA spokesman said the programme, which was rolled out in 2006 to accelerate the deployment of high-speed wireless broadband, has since evolved with the aim of providers becoming self-sustaining operators.

When the programme was first launched in 2006, all three providers of the service - SingTel, then iCell and M1 (formerly QMax) - were fully funded and "incentivised" by the Government to set up the Wi-Fi infrastructure. They were also allocated specific areas where they had to roll out and maintain hot spots.

Providers under the new phase - SingTel, M1, StarHub and Y5Zone - are now expected to develop their own enterprise solutions to "generate revenue streams that would help support the continued provision of free Wi-Fi access to the public", said the IDA spokesman.

This shift in government funding has also meant that malls and business owners will now have to "work with operators on commercial arrangements" and pay them to offer Wireless@SG to their customers.

Telcos will also have the leeway to deploy hot spots according to their business needs, the spokesman added.

M1 said it will remove Wireless@SG hot spots only when required by building owners to do so.

It declined to name the buildings affected.

Similarly, StarHub, which recently came on board as a provider, said it will "evaluate coverage areas based on business needs as and when they arise".

But the drop in hot spots was largely due to provider iCell's exit in July, the IDA said.

The local systems integrator used to provide Wireless@SG services at malls including Nex in Serangoon and Hougang Mall.

AsiaMalls, which lost the free public Wi-Fi service at several malls it operates such as Tiong Bahru Plaza and White Sands due to iCell's exit, said it is still evaluating whether to jump back onto the Wireless@SG bandwagon, although it is unlikely to do so.

While the IDA said iCell's hot spots may eventually be replaced by any of the four existing providers, many users have questioned if the free Wi-Fi network is still relevant, with smartphones becoming more common.

Video game shop owner Terence Koh, 28, said 3G and 4G data networks are more than sufficient for his surfing needs.

But for Mr Jeffrey Lee, who recently discovered that Wireless@SG had disappeared at a mall along Orchard Road where he works, the data caps on 3G and 4G plans make the free Wi-Fi service more necessary than ever.

Said the manager, 35: "Now, I either go to the library or I just cut back."

derrickh@sph.com.sg

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