Jury is still out on Zhaoqing's 'wireless city'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2009, 12:00am

Zhaoqing has long been known as Guangdong's garden city, but the local government has an ambitious plan to transform it into a wireless city.

Last month, Zhaoqing's city government signed a 2.3 billion yuan (HK$2.6 billion) contract with China Mobile to build a wireless Zhaoqing in the next five years.

The term 'wireless city' conjures up images of a futuristic urban environment filled with 3G phones and laptops, a place where every citizen can check their e-mail and do their shopping any time, any place.

The plan sounds grand. Although what exactly a Chinese wireless city is remains unclear.

Will Zhaoqing, a serene tourist city, become like Venice - which has successfully combined its natural landscape, cultural heritage and hi-tech by establishing wi-fi hotspots just about everywhere along its cobweb of waterways?

According to state media reports, the government's vision seems to be bigger than just a wi-fi network.

The city and the Guangdong arm of China Mobile is planning to build an extensive telecommunications network which will support extensive use of 3G and other advanced telecommunications technology. They will also build an industrial park for digital telecom enterprises, promote digital government services, establish telecommunications networks in rural areas to help promote agriculture, and help the tourist industry and medium and small-sized enterprises to better access digital networks. The plan also includes rebranding Zhaoqing as a hi-tech city. The grand ambitions of Zhaoqing and China Mobile - if they come to fruition - will help the second-tier Guangdong city catch up with its provincial rivals in the delta's tech race.

Still, that is one almighty 'if'.

The 'wireless city' has been a recurring vision for ambitious urban planners since the advent of high-speed internet. One of the most talked about schemes was 2005's 'Wireless Philadelphia', in which telecoms firm Earthlink installed routers on the US city's street lights and sought to tempt citizens with low-cost access. Few were tempted, and amid deteriorating relations between the company and the city, the service eventually wound down.

Zhaoqing, in the mountainous western part of the province, is not the first Guangdong city to raise the idea of a wireless future. Ten months ago, provincial information industry officials hatched a grand plan to transform Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Foshan into the world's first 'urban wireless complex'. But so far nothing more about the plans have been heard.

There are many questions surrounding Zhaoqing's wireless ambition. Do Zhaoqing residents really need wi-fi everywhere? Can it boost e-commerce as hoped? Or will it just become another white elephant? The mainland media and the public have their doubts - with just a small proportion of the public owning laptops and expensive 3G mobile phones, why is the government pursuing something that will benefit so few?

For many in Zhaoqing, easy access to wi-fi is low down the list of priorities, well behind improved schools and more affordable hospitals.

Another question is over the nature of the relationship between the city government and China Mobile. Many mainland telecommunications experts believe the best way forward is for governments to invest in the network infrastructure, not the provider. Zhaoqing, like Philadelphia, is following the opposite path.

At a 'wireless city forum' in Xiamen in May, deputy minister of industry and information technology Yang Xueshan told attendees the government and telecom operators needed to work together to push forward the construction and development of the idea.

Xiamen was not chosen to host the conference just because of its pleasant seaside views - it is the mainland's first wireless city and is seen as a model of co-operation between local governments and telecommunications firms. With the network in place, now all parties have fingers crossed that it can really improve e-commerce and tourism and make it more attractive to investors.

For Zhaoqing, there is still a long way to go before it can prove itself to be a truly wireless city - and not simply unplugged.