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Asia's wireless generation

By Barun Roy
December 08, 2005 03:30 IST
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Did you know that Asia's most popular wireless hotspot is a coffee shop in Hong Kong, Pacific Coffee at The Peak?

This revealing piece of information is contained in a recent survey that Intel, the chipmaker, has done of places in the region that its growing laptop community is most in love with.

And when we learn from the same survey that the second spot also belongs to a coffee house - Starbucks at Sydney's Circular Quay - the hint is quite clear: we are witnessing the emergence of a lifestyle that affects the way we do business in anything from coffee to tourism to conventions to art and culture.

At the heart of this lifestyle is the mobility and freedom of communication that a wireless-enabled laptop gives, making it possible to bring leisure and business closer together like never before. You don't need to be bound to a landline anymore or confined to home or office even to transfer files and graphics at high speed or hold a conference with distant colleagues or customers. Given the proper infrastructure, you can do all that, and much more, no matter where you are, at a coffee shop, in a shopping mall, on a trans-Pacific flight, or by a hotel swimming pool.

This ability to combine leisure and business, where neither leisure is affected nor business, is so attractive to a whole lot of people - tourists, business people, executives, or simply anybody who enjoys life on the go - that Pacific Coffee offers wireless Internet connectivity in all its 29 Hong Kong outlets. As the Intel survey shows, businesses and services around the region, as elsewhere in the world, are discovering the usefulness of wireless hotspots as a marketing ploy.

Wireless hotspots are specific locations where an access point provides public wireless broadband network services to mobile visitors through a wireless local area network. As Intel points out, people are increasingly likely to carry their notebooks with them as they head out of home or office, either to the neighbourhood coffee shop or to exciting locations and conferences abroad. Fuelled in part by the proliferation of digital cameras, email, and instant messaging, it's a development that can no longer be ignored.

Suntec, Singapore's international convention and exhibition centre, is entirely covered by a wireless broadband "cloud", offering connectivity not only in its meeting rooms, exhibition halls, concourses and galleries, but also in all its restaurants, plazas and gardens. The island republic's airport, Changi, is particularly popular with passengers because of the seamless Internet access it provides for the laptop community in addition to over 200 free Internet-ready PCs placed throughout its two terminals.

There are three tourist locations in the Intel survey, which shows how wireless hotspots are becoming an essential part of tourist promotion. The Great Wall of China, visited by some four million tourists every year, has parts that have been "unwired" for convenient, on-site wireless access. Jeju, South Korea's scenic resort island, is growing steadily as a favoured convention tourism destination on the strength of its expanding wireless connectivity. Soon, the island will offer its visitors "super-connected" cars to travel around in, where they can do a whole lot of wireless computing on a 3.7-inch portable monitor.

And then there's Xintiandi, a redeveloped neighbourhood in Shanghai's city centre, which, through a clever mixing of old and new architecture, has become a huge tourist attraction. If Shanghai is one of the world's most compelling destinations, as The New York Times says it is, particularly for those looking for a great meal, then Xintiandi is its hottest entertainment hub, where yesterday is said to meet tomorrow. And if a remarkable concentration of international restaurants, boutiques, nightclubs, accessory shops and cinemas has helped build Xintiandi's reputation, then the public wireless connectivity that's available there has certainly contributed to its popularity with locals and visitors alike. The whole area is under a wireless "cloud".

Asia is lapping up laptops - shipments totalled 3.9 million units in the first half of 2005, excluding Japan, up 40.4 per cent over a year ago - and as the price gap between notebooks and desktop PCs continues to narrow, mobility is evolving from a purely business proposition to a compelling consumer lifestyle. Bowing to demand, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and Singapore Airlines have begun to offer anywhere-in-the-cabin web access on selected international flights.

Inevitably, the trend now is to move beyond business and build citywide wireless hotspots. Taipei, Busan, Hong Kong, Cebu City, Perth, Auckland and Adelaide are among cities that are actively planning to employ the Wi-Fi technology in public areas. With the 2008 Olympic Games looming, Beijing will be no exception. Indeed, analysts say, China is going to use the Olympics as a trigger to deploy as many public hotspots across the entire country as possible.

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Barun Roy
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