SINGAPORE - Shoppers and diners may no longer be able to access the free public Wi-Fi networks at some of their favourite malls.
This is because the number of free hot spots has dipped by a third over the past year as the Government discontinued its funding for the roll-out of Wireless@SG service locations.
Latest figures obtained by The Straits Times showed that the number of Wireless@SG hot spots has plunged from 7,500 across 2,300 locations to 5,200 across some 1,700 locations by August.
The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) said it has stripped all funding for "deployment and operations costs of Wireless@SG" hot spots, under the latest phase of the programme which began in April.
In a statement to The Straits Times, an IDA spokesman said the programme, which was rolled out in 2006 to accelerate the deployment of high-speed wireless broadband, has since evolved with the aim of providers becoming self-sustaining operators.
When the programme was first launched in 2006, all three providers of the service - SingTel, then iCell and M1 (formerly QMax) - were fully funded and "incentivised" by the Government to set up the Wi-Fi infrastructure. They were also allocated specific areas where they had to roll out and maintain hot spots.
Providers under the new phase - SingTel, M1, StarHub and Y5Zone - are now expected to develop their own enterprise solutions to "generate revenue streams that would help support the continued provision of free Wi-Fi access to the public", said the IDA spokesman.
This shift in government funding has also meant that malls and business owners will now have to "work with operators on commercial arrangements" and pay them to offer Wireless@SG to their customers.
Telcos will also have the leeway to deploy hot spots according to their business needs, the spokesman added.
M1 said it will remove Wireless@SG hot spots only when required by building owners to do so.
It declined to name the buildings affected.
Similarly, StarHub, which recently came on board as a provider, said it will "evaluate coverage areas based on business needs as and when they arise".
But the drop in hot spots was largely due to provider iCell's exit in July, the IDA said.
The local systems integrator used to provide Wireless@SG services at malls including Nex in Serangoon and Hougang Mall.
AsiaMalls, which lost the free public Wi-Fi service at several malls it operates such as Tiong Bahru Plaza and White Sands due to iCell's exit, said it is still evaluating whether to jump back onto the Wireless@SG bandwagon, although it is unlikely to do so.
While the IDA said iCell's hot spots may eventually be replaced by any of the four existing providers, many users have questioned if the free Wi-Fi network is still relevant, with smartphones becoming more common.
Video game shop owner Terence Koh, 28, said 3G and 4G data networks are more than sufficient for his surfing needs.
But for Mr Jeffrey Lee, who recently discovered that Wireless@SG had disappeared at a mall along Orchard Road where he works, the data caps on 3G and 4G plans make the free Wi-Fi service more necessary than ever.
Said the manager, 35: "Now, I either go to the library or I just cut back."
2006 to 2009: Roll-out of Wireless@SG
Wireless@SG was launched in December 2006. One of its aims was to extend broadband access beyond homes, schools and offices to public places.
IDA funded three operators - SingTel, M1 and iCell - to provide Wireless@SG coverage in areas with high human traffic, such as the Central Business District and Orchard Road. The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) was prepared to defray up to $30 million of the cost for setting up Wi-Fi hot spots and access points across the island.
2009 to 2013: Faster speeds, more options
Wireless@SG was enhanced in 2009, with access speeds doubling to 1 Mbps in September 2009.
IDA worked with the operators to promote the adoption of enterprise services over the Wireless@SG network such as advertising and cashless payments. This was partially funded to subsidise free public Wi-Fi and to promote self-sustainability. IDA drops iCell as a provider.
2013 to 2017: Speeds double again; deployment funding stops
Access speeds were doubled to 2 Mbps from April this year. As of December last year, there were 2.26 million subscribers, with each staying on the network for an average of 31 hours a month. StarHub and Y5Zone come onboard as providers.
While funding for the deployment of hot spots has ceased, the IDA said it will still provide subsidies for infrastructural enhancement, such as the implementation of SIM-based authentication to all hot spots, where users are automatically logged on to the network when it detects a registered 3G or 4G SIM card.
Source: Infocomm Development Authority
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