City-wide Wi-Fi: A New Critical Urban Resource
With more than 538 million Internet subscribers (according to the China Internet Network Utilization Center) and approximately 164 million orders for smartphones, China is now one of the largest markets in the Wi-Fi industry.
Yet much more may be at stake in these newly established networks of connectivity. The map published by East-West-Connect.com shows that Internet penetration is much higher in cities than in rural areas (50% against 18.5%). Urban populations seem to have largely adopted instant communication in their daily lives: texting, shopping, routinely searching for online information, employing geolocation services to navigate the city, and even connecting to the Internet to optimize their commutes on public transport. Information is now primarily accessed through the Internet, and particularly from mobile phones (33% of China’s urban population owns a smartphone). In this context, China’s new public Wi-Fi project is especially meaningful.
Chinese cities have taken pride for some years now in establishing free urban network services. The specific cities and sites selected to initiate the public Wi-Fi trial project, however, have been strategically chosen. In Beijing, for instance, public Wi-Fi areas currently established and under consideration include the historical center, tourist sites, and train stations (Houhai, Dongzhimen Hub, Wangfujing Street, Nanluoguxiang Street, Xidan Commercial District). It is hoped that public Wi-Fi in these spots might make Chinese cities more attractive for tourists and other urban users with the means to take advantage of such services.
From these government initiatives, it would seem that an entire city blanketed with free public Wi-Fi coverage is not so far away. In Beijing, the Beijing Economic and Information Technology Committee announced that the Internet would be available throughout the capital within the next three years. The first free connection areas were established in December 2011. In Guangzhou, public Wi-Fi was also launched last year. Local authorities have even raised Wi-Fi’s position to number five in a ranking of resource utility, just after water, electricity, gas and transport. Shanghai is also no exception, with the project i-Shanghai and the collaboration with American coffee chain Starbucks resulting in more than 300 places throughout the city opening up free public connections. It is expected that the city will be fully covered with Wi-Fi by 2015.
Yet while authorities and operators have been widely publicizing these efforts since 2008, most free networks are still only partially operational. Only six areas of connection are actually accessible in Beijing, and users report many problems continue to prevent them from using the “My Beijing” application – the platform that purports to offer at least three hours of free connection. Authorities here claim possible interferences with other private networks. Finally, it is worth noting that the Beijing Economic and Information Technology Committee has already announced that this service could lose its cost-free status within three years.