Dawn of the Wireless Utopias; for $12 a Month, a Taipei Resident Can Tote a Laptop Computer to the Park and Watch Cable Television

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Byline: Jonathan Adams

Taipei is dreaming big: it wants to be the world's first completely wireless metropolis. Other cities boast a patchwork of hotspots at hotels, coffee shops and colleges, and tiny towns in the United States and elsewhere have already been blanketed with anywhere, anytime Wi-Fi. But the Taiwanese capital (population: 2.6 million) is on track to become the first major world city to attain geek nirvana. Its ambitious Wifly project will stretch a single wireless network over the city's 272 square kilometers. Beginning in 2003, the city has so far installed 2,400 access points in the central part of town. If all goes well, by the end of June, 5,000 access points will provide a seamless network available outdoors and in, covering some 90 percent of Taipei. In a year, that number is expected to double to 10,000.

Taipei won't stay at the top for long. Philadelphia, San Francisco and a 3,800-square-kilometer patch of Silicon Valley have Wi-Fi projects in the works. So do Bangalore and cities in the U.K., Sweden, Germany and Spain.

Beyond bragging rights, what do these cities expect to gain by blanketing their environs with Wi-Fi networks? Proponents point to a bevy of new services. Sheng Chang, vice president of Q-Ware, which is spending $93 million on Taipei's network, says customers can now move around the city but stay connected to one network, with one password--rather than have to hop between hotspots on different networks. For $12 a month, a Taipei resident can tote a laptop computer to the park and watch cable TV. Or he can print documents and photos while riding the subway or chowing at a noodle stand. "We're going to change people's lives in Taipei city," says Chang.

Wi-Fi has some tough competition. Cell phones already do a pretty good job of keeping people connected, and the latest 3G models boast a range of multimedia bells and whistles. …