Free wifi spreads to Beijing's business center

BEIJING -- A free wifi service launches in Beijing's business center, the first in a chain of wireless hotspots set to open in the city.
Written by Tom Hancock, Contributor on

BEIJING – In Beijing’s downtown, accessing the internet just got easier. A wifi service launched last month gives free net access, so long as you provide a cellphone number or have microblog account.

Beijing’s city government paid 10 million RMB (about $1.6 million USD) to install the network, according to local media. US firm CISCO provided the hardware from the project, and cooperation with Chinese microblogging companies (who run Chinese equivalents of Twitter), allows users to access the wifi network using their microblog accounts, another sign of how microblogs have become a central part of China's internet landscape.

The network covers Beijing’s “central business district”, a congested clump of high-rise buildings which house most of Beijing’s largest corporations. The network has a radius of four miles, according to a statement from Chinese internet company Sina. But currently, the coverage seems to be more patchy. In a cavernous three-story branch of Starbucks, close to the center of the CBD, the network wasn’t accessible at all. “Wifi in the CBD? nonsense!” one frustrated user wrote on her microblog.

The wifi network was accessible a few hundred meters further north. Logging on requires users to either

Users can log on using their microblog accounts.

enter their Chinese ID card number, or use their microblog account and phone number, which helps the Government to keep track of users. Beijing’s government is open about its attempt to track the identity of internet users, and the wireless plan helps them accomplish the twin objectives of making Beijing more connected, and making internet use easier to police. But in practice, its easy preserve anonymity, as Chinese microblogs have not implemented a real-name login system.

Download speeds averaged at about 1mbps, fast enough to stream all the Korean soap operas and American comedy shows a Beijing office worker could desire. Sites which are blocked by China's “Great Firewall”, such as Youtube and Facebook, were not accessible. But savvy users can still use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service with the wifi network to get over the Firewall.

The service doesn’t add much to Beijing’s central business district, where its easy to find cafes with wifi, and most businesses have their own internet access. But the wifi scheme will be extended to six less connected areas in Beijing, including shopping districts and the Olympic stadium, the Beijing city government announced on its microblog.

Beijing’s sub-zero winter temperatures aren’t encouraging use of the service. “Waiting for the bus, using free wifi, feeling very cold,” one user wrote on her Sina Microblog.

Pictures: Flickr; Sina

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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