Published on September 17th,2010 at 5:42 PM
By >Akihabara News Team

[Essay] Public Wifi: United States and Japan

[Essay] Public Wifi: United States and Japan

Residents and visitors of New York City will get free wifi access in their public parks soon, various online news outlets announced yesterday. Apparently it’s planned to be limited to only three ten-minute sessions per month before you’ll have to pay 99 cents a day, but compare this to Japan: this is better.

On January 15, 2010, McDonald’s restaurants in the US made their in-store wifi hotspots free after previously having charged $2.95 for two hours of use. Google’s free wifi service over the winter holidays from November 2009 to January 2010, which customers at fifty-four American airports and those flying with Virgin America could use, completely free of charge. Google also operate free municipal wifi in Mountain View, California, where they are headquartered; with plans for a rollout in San Francisco sometime in the future, as well.

In Japan: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Tully’s, and a multitude of other food places and public areas do offer wifi – but as a rule, these services aren’t free. They require either a one-time fee or subscription to a public wifi service offered by any of a number of Internet Service Providers, such as Softbank BB, TripletGate, or NTT Docomo; while admittedly not expensive – some subscriptions are only three bucks a month – having to transact with a third-party company is decidedly more complicated than, say, walking into a Starbucks and getting one-day wifi access with your purchase of a latte. The large headcount of companies that offer public wifi service also means that segmentation is inevitable – you have to walk to a McDonald’s fifteen minutes away to use your Softbank wifi subscription, even if there’s a Starbucks with wifi served by Docomo right there in front of you – or, as was the case for me the other day (see gallery image), there are five different access points in one single store all clashing in the 2.4GHz spectrum, rendering all of them unreliable – not to mention causing problems for residents and businesses nearby.

Many companies are now selling mobile 3G-to-wifi hotspots – Japanese equivalents to the American MiFi. You can see business people getting some work in on the trains, at stations, on the street, or in parks, their silver Panasonic business-rugged Toughbooks (Let’s Notes in Japan) beleaguered with the big silver tumor of a Docomo 3G antenna growing out of their USB ports. Big electronics chains in Japan are heavily pushing WiMAX, and more new laptop models sold today have onboard WiMAX antennas, but coverage is limited to heavy population centers – and an unlimited subscription costs ¥4,480 a month. Poor broke college students can’t afford that kind of money for on-the-go tweeting and keeping up with their Facebook friends’ updates. Something’s going to have to change.

Fortunately, a quick look at Japan on Fon’s coverage map turns into a long, labored look at Japan on Fon’s coverage map, because most non-supercomputer PCs need about twenty minutes to render all the hotspot icons in any representative view on their Google Maps mashup. Fon is an international community of people who share, using wifi, part of their Internet tubes (rest in peace, Senator Ted Stevens) in return for free access to wifi shared by other Fon users, and is the epitome of a give-and-take engaged in by users with only the promise of an indirect return to one’s charity. Hopefully this culture of sharing helps bring about the same “dramatic shift” in the “balance of power between free and paid Wi-Fi” that can be seen in the United States.

Lead photo and photo on main page by Ed Yourdon on Flickr. CC-compliant derivative work (resized). Licensed CC by-nc-sa 2.0 in line with Share Alike clause of original artwork.

Category Internet
              
[Essay] Public Wifi: United States and Japan
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Comments
 

  • http://Website speculatrix

    free wifi is everywhere in the USA now – it saves me a lot of money of phone roaming charges as I can use a voip service like voipfone.co.uk or sipgate.co.uk – so much so that if I am in a restaurant which doesn’t have wifi, I express surprise to the staff and suggest they really need to get it!

    here in the UK it’s still treated as a cash cow, hotels are the worst, which is why I think that so many people have data contracts with USB dongles! Considering that it costs barely £30 (< US$50) to rent a phone line and a ADSL service to provide, they're trying to screw the customer over with a £1/hour usage!

    Paul

    • T.Kimura

      One thing I forgot to mention is that EVERYTHING in Japan is outsourced – building and campus security, all manner of projects, even administration of the ubiquitous public lockers that train stations here are so famous for – that the first step for any mom-and-pop shop that just decided to deploy public wifi ISN’T to rent a data pipe, sign up for Internet service, and buy a wireless AP – it’s to look up the cheapest and best service that manages all of that. Whichever service that private storeowner chooses is the service the store’s customers will have to sign up with to be able to use it – all others with subscriptions with other services be damned.

      People use 3G data cards in the UK as well? What are the fees like? I do know that the iPhone is offered by multiple carriers there, which gives you guys a one-up on America AND Japan. What’s the scene like for tethering on the iPhone?

  • Jay

    I thought that Japan was advanced but when I got here I was surprised to find no free wifi anywhere. No free museums. No free information. If you are poor in Japan you are just out of luck.

    • T.Kimura

      It never occurred to me that free museums is a norm in parts of the world outside Japan. You certainly do need money to have fun in Japan, though – especially the kind of fun where you can meet new people. It does seem that the advances Japan is famous for are definitely on the other side of a large chasm from the rest of Japanese culture – an overwhelming percentage of Japanese people suck at using computers, for example – and the parts of the advances that do mix with our lives are so thoroughly permeated our day-to-day business that we don’t realize how much of an advance it actually is, compared to other parts of the world – tap water or trains that are on time, for example.

  • http://vampirelles.blogspot.com Sharpedon

    In Athens,Greece you can find free wi-fi almost everywhere;public parks,coffe shops,even the entire main port of Piraeus has been covered wirelessly the last two to four years.
    This applies to most of the other cities too.For instance the entire Trikala,one of our smaller cities,has been treated with free wi-fi by the municipality.Only some 5 star hotels request money for wi-fi access.But of course if you want wireless internet *everywhere*(and you are not one of the lucky ones living in Trikala),you have to use cellular,i.e. the USB 3G sticks you mention.These are not cheap,for unlimited access at a much slower speed they ask around 50€/¥5,595 per month!
    WiMax is still at the testing stage,and no prices have been yet announced.

    • T.Kimura

      I do know that in the US, plans for municipal wifi have repeatedly been shot down by cable companies and other ISPs that make money from residential Internet service; but in Japan, either there has been nothing to spur that debate, or us regular folk don’t hear anything about it. A quick look online shows just two municipalities that offer free public wifi outside of public buildings, like government offices and public libraries; the example that most stands out is Hiroshima, which offers free wifi in the Peace Memorial Park and a 1km length of street that starts just outside the park.

      Unlimited 3G data card plans with Docomo, the mobile offshoot of the former national telephone company, is 5,985 JPY (or 53 EUR); with Softbank, the company that was the catalyst for the recent pricing revolution in Japan (and the company I see the most foreigners signing up with), the service is 4,679 JPY (42 EUR). Both are a tad bit more expensive than the 380-yen-per-month public wifi provider I’m signed up with, which gives me access to wifi at McDonald’s, Doutor coffee chains, some train stations, airports, and inside that expensive express line that runs through central Tokyo to Narita airport. Of course, if I only do work at McDonald’s and there are enough McDonald’s around, I’d have no problem, but there are times when I really, really need to get online to update something or fix something or research something (yes, I know, even college students have time-sensitive issues) and I need to rely on less… cromulent methods, let’s say.

 

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