Posted by: lrrp | April 26, 2007

Wireless in the World

Wi-Fi technology is a luxury in some places, a weapon in others–and the only way to communicate for some. Here are 10 cities on the front lines of a revolution.
Newsweek International

June 7-14 issue – Keeping Watch
London, England
Population: 7.4 million
Why: Crimefighting enters the wireless era
Fact: Soon, cops will watch over their entire stomping grounds on laptops and PDAs

Police Sgt. John Baldock had spent many evenings staking out the door-way of the family-run Italian eatery Rosticceria Rusticana, where drug dealers plied their trade away from the surveillance cameras that dot London’s trendy-cum-seedy Soho neighborhood. His big break came when Westminster’s nerdy information-network manager, Andrew Snellgrove, stuck a tiny wireless camera in a lamppost across the street. A week later, Baldock had all the evidence he needed to arrest several dealers.

Police are about to turn Soho into the first wireless law-enforcement district. In the next six months, Snellgrove will install 50 wireless cameras and sensors around the neighborhood. They’ll take real-time videos good enough to be admissible in court, and sensors will monitor unusual noises. Because the cameras won’t be fixed, police will be able to move them constantly, creating the impression of total surveillance. Crooks, beware.

—Emily Flynn

Biggest Network
Seoul, South Korea
Population:
10.3 mil.
Why: Holds 20% of the world’s Wi-Fi hotspots
Fact: Roughly half of all Internet usage in South Korea is conducted via wireless connections

Lee Hye Ryung’s life revolves around the wireless Internet. During her 45-minute morning subway commute to school, the graduate student at Yonsei University in Seoul chats with her friends or plays online games through her PDA phone. She brings her laptop to every class and takes notes, searches the Internet and makes presentations with it—using Wi-Fi hotspots sprinkled around campus. The computer even comes with her on geology field trips to the remote countryside. “I have access to the Internet almost any time, anywhere,” she says. “I feel insecure when I am not connected.”

Lee isn’t the only Seoul resident who’s always online. The South Korean capital has the most extensive wireless-broadband network in the world, with more than 400,000 Wi-Fi subscribers. Wi-Fi is available in airports, hotels, government offices, libraries, banks and fast-food restaurants.

Korea Telecom started its mobile-broadband service two years ago. Its latest offering, Nespot Swing, combines conventional mobile-phone service with mobile-broadband Internet. A $500 PDA phone built specially for the service puts a 5-megabits-per-second Wi-Fi connection at your disposal. With its built-in camcorder, you can also take still or video pictures and upload them immediately to your blog. KT plans to raise the number of Wi-Fi hotspots from 13,000 to 23,000 in South Korea, with nearly half of them in the capital. “In major areas of Seoul, mobile Internet zones will be within three minutes’ walk from any place,” says KT vice president Hahn Won Sic.

If Wi-Fi technology is ever going to catch on to the extent that mobile phones have, though, service providers will need to find a way to appeal to adults—most users are students, who can’t afford to pay much for the service. Or they can wait: the kids at Yonsei University are not getting any younger.

—B.J. Lee

Gratis in Gotham
New York, United States
Population:
8.2 mil.
Why: Heart of the rebel Wi-Fi movement
Fact: 500 public pay phones are being converted into hotspots for wireless users

The Big Apple now blasts Internet connectivity into the air along with taxi exhaust, the smell of honeyed peanuts from sidewalk vendors and the blare of honking horns. Some of it is official: traffic police in the borough of Queens ticket cars with handheld bar-code scanners from Symbol Technologies. Carried by cops, the scanners are linked via Wi-Fi to portable printers and also transmit the tickets back to central computers. The city says it’s saving millions a year with just 1,000 of the $2,100 devices by reducing errors, and it will order 500 more this year. There are also 112 Starbucks coffee shops, 60 McDonald’s restaurants and thousands of hotels all offering subscription access to Wi-Fi networks.

But New York is also one of the best places in the world to log on to free hotspots. Free networks cover the Columbia University campus, Bryant Park, Union Square and the Chelsea Piers Sports Complex on the West Side of Manhattan. Grass-roots groups are trying to cover their neighborhoods in free connectivity. One group, Evill Net, stitched together a free network that works from rooftops in the East Village. Since May 2003 another, the Downtown Alliance, has connected eight parks and open spaces in lower Manhattan, near the former site of the World Trade Center. It is now one of the most heavi-ly used Wi-Fi networks in the world. Who said nothing in New York was free?

—Brad Stone

Freedom in the Airwaves
Tallinn, Estonia

Population: 397,150
Why: Wireless bolsters a fledgling democracy
Fact: In 2000 Tallinn had only three Wi-Fi hotspots. Today there are more than 300.

The grim decades of Soviet rule in Estonia gave the Cafe Pegasus, an austere ’60s building just inside Tallinn’s towering medieval walls, a reputation as a clandestine meeting spot for writers and intellectuals. “This was a place where you spoke about things you wouldn’t speak about anywhere else,” says owner Mart Tomson.

How times change. These days Estonia is open and democratic, and the patrons of hyperchic Pegasus, like the rest of Tallinn, now embrace wireless technology almost as a democratic right. Thanks to a blend of private enterprise and government benevolence, Pegasus is among scores of Tallinn venues to boast free Wi-Fi access.

Estonians see a link between easy—or free—access to information and their new democracy. Back in 1991, when the country won its independence, a forward-thinking government looked to IT and the Internet as central pillars of its future economy. At relatively little cost, Estonia leapfrogged into a place among Europe’s cyberelite.

Since then wireless has taken hold as nowhere else in Europe. Three of four people have a cell phone, and they can use it to pay for anything from a glass of beer to space in a parking lot (which, by the way, will call when your time is nearly up). Government ministers conduct weekly cabinet sessions online.

The key to the success of wireless has as much to do with a hands-off approach as with deliberate strategy. From the start, an independent Estonia pursued a ruthless free-market line: no state monopoly for telecoms, minimal regulation and healthy competition among commercial players. “The government sees no need to regulate,” says Tex Vertmann, an IT adviser to Prime Minister Juhan Parts. In Estonia cyberspace belongs to all. That’s democracy.

—William Underhill

Only Way to Communicate
Baghdad, Iraq

Population: 5.8 mil.
Why: The only way to stay connected
Fact: Only one third of Iraq’s prewar phone lines are now in service, and they are unreliable

Twenty-two-year-old Hasanen Nawfal studies computer science at a private college in Baghdad, but he may be learning more on the streets. He and his buddies honed their computer skills looking for ways to circumvent the censorship of Saddam Hussein. When most Web services were banned, they accessed the Internet by hacking into the government network. Now they’ve picked up a new hobby: “war driving,” or stealing other people’s wireless bandwidth while driving past with a laptop. The practice has become popular among Baghdad’s increasingly high-tech denizens. “Hijacking wireless networks has become a bad habit for us,” says Nawfal. “All you need is to be about 100 meters away from the target access point,” he says. “Then you sniff and decode the packets.”

Baghdad’s worsening security has crippled efforts to reconstruct fixed-line telephone networks—only about a third of the million or so lines have been restored—to say nothing of complicated fiber and cable systems. Cell phones and to a lesser extent Wi-Fi have become indispensable tools for thousands of Iraqis, journalists and U.S. officials. Although Baghdad doesn’t have the Wi-Fi hotspots of San Francisco or Seoul, it is arguably the most wireless-dependent city on the planet.

Independent Iraqi entrepreneurs do a brisk business providing Wi-Fi to Iraqi and foreign customers. More than 35 companies sent in over 100 bids for rights to construct the country’s future commercial-telecom industry, including what analysts believe will be a huge wireless component. The technology has already caught on with people who have had hard times with cable connections. “We used to have a DSL line that would go down for days at a time,” says Adam Davidson, a correspondent for U.S. public radio. He switched to wireless. Soon his house’s six tenants were surfing the Net on Wi-Fi, beamed to a receiver connected to a satellite dish on the provider’s roof.

Although analysts say that the market for cell phones and Wi-Fi could reach $1.2 billion by 2008, commercial services haven’t taken hold. That doesn’t mean there’s no innovation. The U.S. military is working up emergency networks for Baghdad’s police and firefighters. After all, Baghdad is already a hotspot as it is.

—Scott Johnson

The Humblest Digital City
Pirai, Brazil
Population:
23,600
Why: For connecting the once remote
Fact: In one month this rural town in a low-tech country built itself a wireless network

You won’t find Pirai in a Fodor’s guide. Nor is this poky town of 23,600 inhabitants, whose renown peaked during the 19th-century Brazilian coffee boom, exactly the nerve center of Latin American high technology. But if it were up to Mayor Luiz Fernando de Souza, known to all as Pezo, or Bigfoot in Portuguese, all this will change. Late last year, on the eve of his eighth and final year in office, Souza launched his most ambitious plan ever. He vowed to outfit all municipal facilities, from the town hall to the public schools, with broadband, wireless Internet access.

It sounded quixotic at best. Only a fraction of Brazilians had Internet access of any kind. Even now, just 6 percent of the country’s 11 million Web users enjoy broadband connections—and barely one in 20 of them has gone wireless. What’s more, 90 percent of this vanguard lives in big cities, like Rio de Janeiro. But Bigfoot was never one to think small, and by early this year he’d gone off tilting at transmission towers.

Now humble Pirai, tucked discreetly behind a tall sierra 80 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro, may be the most advanced outpost of wirelessness in Brazil. Radio waves beamed from base stations perched on hills high above the town bring digital data into Pirai at a respectable 14 megabits per second. The signal is picked up by antennas, each the size of a cigarette pack, in health clinics, city hall and open-air kiosks where passers-by can log on for free. While most Brazilian public schoolers are lucky to have a library, students in Pirai elementary schools regularly consult Google and exchange e-mail.

Souza admits he is no computer whiz, but he proudly calls Pirai a digital city. “People thought the whole thing was a bit megalomaniacal,” he says. “But I’m confident that technology can make a big difference for young people.”

It’s worth the gamble. In a continent where poverty has always prospered, fancy technology has long been the privilege of a wafer-thin class of sophisticates. Until the 1990s even a fixed telephone line was beyond the reach of most Latin American consumers. A decade of economic overhauling, including privatization of telephone services, changed things dramatically. Now mobile telephones are expected to outnumber land lines within a few years, and computer sales and Internet access are burgeoning.

Wireless technology has barely begun, but thanks to a healthy mix of pioneers like Souza, enterprising tech companies and a restless society hungry for the latest gadgets, that might soon change as well. Souza has made sure Pirai leads this trend. Several companies, including a software firm, have already migrated to Pirai, drawn by the reliable Web access. Students who were left behind in the classroom are using the Internet to catch up. “I’m even learning to use the Internet myself,” Souza says. It’s not a bad retirement plan.

—Mac Margolis

All Over the Place
Auckland, N.Z.
Population:
367,734
Why: City offers seamless connectivity
Fact: PCs and Web-enabled phones work anywhere within a 35km-wide wireless grid

Auckland is famous for sailing, aquariums, Maori culture and dinosaur skeletons. Wireless Internet access is perhaps not far behind. In most cities, connecting wirelessly to the Internet means scoping out a Wi-Fi hotspot and sitting with your laptop in one place, or surfing the Net over a pocket-size phone with a tiny screen. Six months ago Auckland became one of the few cities to see the deployment of a single wireless broadband network that blankets its entire area. Users can surf the Net from the beach, their office, their home or a moving bus.

Upstart telecom firm Woosh Wireless is responsible for developing the new network. The four-year-old firm installed three wireless base stations at each of 80 cellular sites around town, covering a 52-square-kilometer area. The technology lets subscribers surf the Net on their PCs but adds the freedom of mobile phones.

—Brad Stone

Higher Calling
Vatican City
Population:
1,000
Why: Spreading the faith via wireless
Fact: The pope sends a daily text-message prayer to the faithful on their cell phones

When you walk through the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica these days, you might just catch the glow of a laptop or wireless PDA through the smoky haze of burning incense. The distant hum of Gregorian chants may even be interrupted by the bleep of a mobile phone or the ping of a text message. Vatican City joined the tech revolution in Christmas 1995, when Pope John Paul II launched the Vatican’s Web site (vatican.va) with the text of his annual Urbi et Orbi address. Now it’s taking advantage of wireless technology to spread the Word even farther. “When we came up with the idea that the Vatican go online, the holy father said, ‘Yes, try it right away’,” says Sister Judith Zoebelein, the technical director of the Vatican Internet Office. “But we had no idea how popular it would be.”

The Vatican Web site, which is published in six languages, receives more than 2 million daily hits. Spurred by this success, the Roman Catholic Church is engaging in bolder experiments. Last year the Vatican News Service began delivering announcements to journalists on their BlackBerry wireless PDAs; in October it made the service available by subscription to anybody. Prior to that the church also began issuing a daily papal prayer in the form of a cell-phone text message; it now has more than a million subscribers. The Vatican hopes eventually to reach the millions of faithful in the developing world, who lack broadband Internet access or even reliable telephones. Its programmers are hard at work on a new version of the Web site that can fit the tiny screens of wireless PDAs. “Mass media can be a good means of evangelism,” says Sister Judith.

In the next few months, Wi-Fi hotspots will be popping up all over St. Peter’s Square and inside the church. By Easter, tourists with wireless laptops or PDAs may be able to download information about the architectural history of Bernini’s columns or the significance of Michelangelo’s Pieta in electronic form, to serve as e-book pocket guides. Sister Judith would love to see the church offer wireless e-learning of catechism or even marriage-preparation classes: “Technology, as it is made newly available, we believe becomes integrated into our environment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” For the Vatican, the medium is indeed the message.

—Barbie Nadeau

Gambler’s Link
Las Vegas, U.S.A.
Population:
478,434
Why: Wi-Fi fills boom- town’s need to connect
Fact: This gambling mecca has no public Wi-Fi nodes, but nearly 70 commercial hotspots

Even inveterate gamblers need to check their e-mail once in a while. Hotels on the Strip like the Rio, Circus Circus and MGM Grand are joining the worldwide wave of hotels offering guests Wi-Fi access in their rooms. Dozens of Starbucks cafes, Subway stores and Panera Bread bakeries will let you log on while you munch. And chances are, if you’re visiting Las Vegas for one of its many industry confabs, some enterprising company has turned the country’s busiest convention center into a free Wi-Fi hotspot.

Vegas really shines, though, in setting an example for the many cities whose populations are exploding, and who are outrunning their utilities. Water shortages are chronic. And cable companies can’t keep up with demand for Internet access. Local start-ups like Verde Communications are trying to plug the gap with wireless access. Verde’s clients include the food court in the MGM Showcase mall, a bunch of local cafes and, most interesting, many of the city’s RV parks. One, the Hitchin’ Post RV Park and Motel, which first opened in 1970, uses Verde’s technology to bring wireless Internet access to its residents for $36 a month. “It’s a huge asset that drives customers to my property,” says manager Brent Childress. It’s not, however, much of a moneymaker. Verde divides the revenues with clients based on how much they initially contribute to building the network. Childress says Wi-Fi “brings in a little bit, but probably not enough to pay the entire bill.

-B.S.

Living the Wireless Lifestyle
Tokyo, Japan
Population:
12.4 mil.
Why: The cutting edge of cell-phone usage
Fact: Japan has 82 million cell phones, a fifth of which offer their users superfast Internet access

Chika Matsumoto rarely puts her cell phone down, even when she’s hanging out with friends at a hamburger shop or soaking in the bathtub. The 17-year-old high-school student is constantly e-mailing her friends. “I want to be aware of what’s going on with my friends and not to be left out,” she says. Her mother wonders: is this an addiction?

If so, it’s one most Tokyo residents share. Although this city may not have the most Wi-Fi hotspots, its population has, arguably, embraced the wireless lifestyle more than any other city. The Japanese were slow to catch on to the Internet, but they made up for it by going for cell phones in a big way. These days just about every person over the age of 12 owns a mobile phone82 million subscribers, of whom a fifth have a super-high-speed 3G phone. “In terms of the variety of ways mobile technologies help shape people’s lives, there’s no other place like Tokyo,” says Hiroshi Miyanaga, the country’s leading telecom expert and a professor at Tokyo University of Science.

The comfort level with cell phones should serve Tokyo residents well as wireless technology develops; many experts think the computer of the future will look more like a cell phone than like a PC. Already in Japan cultural pressures have pushed the cell-phone craze from an emphasis on voice to one on data. Riding a typically packed local train, Tokyo art coordinator Masako Hosoi sends out a one-liner to a friend that she’ll be five minutes late for their lunch date. “I can’t call her, because it would be annoying to the other passengers around me,” she explains. The principle holds true in restaurants, coffee shops, beauty parlors, libraries and beyond.

Pundits are perhaps going too far when they warn that Japanese kids can no longer relate to one another except through their phones. But it is true, as social dynamics change, that traditional support structures are breaking down and technology is filling the gap. Hiroyo Ishibashi’s fourth-grader son, Ryu, carries a wireless GPS-based tracking device called Cocosecom. When he’s late coming home from school, she can pinpoint his whereabouts to within 10 meters. “I usually spot him walking in the neighborhood, and it’s a relief,” says his mother. “Neighbors used to look after children regardless of whether they were their own, but we no longer have that kind of thing.” Japanese telecom companies have plans to equip mobile phones with smart cards, which will transform the devices into wireless credit cards. The cell phone is fast becoming a Swiss Army knife: all you need when you leave home.

—Kay Itoi

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