By >Akihabara News Team
[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.