If you build it, will they pay?

Taipei's difficulty in getting subscribers for its massive wireless network suggests some of the troubles that could be awaiting US cities.
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor

Local governments here in the states with for-fee WiFi plans might do well to reconsider, if Taipei's experience is any guide. A New York Times article explains that the Taiwanese capital built a massive wireless network with 4,100 nodes that reaches 90% of the city's 2.6 million residents - but a mere 40,000 residents have opted to pay the $12.50 a month for ubiquitous Internet.

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.

The Times leads with the story of Peter Shyu, an engineer who would rather use free WiFi in cafes than shell out the monthly fee.

"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."

To take this back to the US, people already shell out $20 to $50 bucks a month for home cable or DSL connections, perhaps extra for BlackBerry service, not to mention mobile phone service. The attractiveness of shelling out more money to get online, when cafes, libraries, etc., offer free connectivity is a little thin. For the impoverished areas that can't get service from the telcos and cable companies, it is a different story, but most citywide Wi-Fis don't adequately penetrate into homes, and those cash-strapped households may not see the value of paying even subsidized rates for connections.

There's clearly a benefit to cities to build out the infrastructure and see what business innovations can come on top of it, it allows government to move more services online, since everyone could have online access, and it should attract business and thus tax revenues. But to get the Internet classes to foot the bill requires something more than just getting online.

"Content is really key," said Darrell M. West, a professor of public policy at Brown University who conducted a survey of how well governments use the Internet. "It's not enough just to have the infrastructure. You have to give people a reason to use the technology."

To that end, Q-Ware has developed P-Walker, a service that will let subscribers with Sony PSP portable game machines log on to WiFly to play online games and download songs and other material.

Like municipal governments in many American cities, Taipei gave Q-Ware access to streetlight poles and other public property to install antennas and cables. Q-Ware has spent about $30 million putting together the network, which also reaches every subway station, hospital and public building. Streetlights did not have the electrical outlets needed to power the antennas, so outdoor hot spots cost about three times more than the indoor access points.

Initially, Q-Ware gave away subscriptions and about 60,000 people signed up. But once Q-Ware started charging for its service in January, only a few thousand subscribers remained.

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