Taiwan's government plans to blanket this island's cities with wireless networks that are integrated with cellular phone services by 2008 as part of an ambitious $1.1 billion project, called M-Taiwan.
Set to get underway next year, the M-Taiwan project has two principal goals: to dramatically expand wired and wireless broadband Internet access in Taiwan and to give local industry a leading position in the development of products and high-bandwidth services that integrate wireless LAN connectivity with support for GSM mobile networks.
Taiwan's wireless Internet plans dwarf a similar, but more limited, project outlined last month by the U.S. city of Philadelphia to build a citywide wireless mesh network at a cost of up to $10 million, in effect turning the city into one giant wireless hotspot.
While Philadelphia officials have billed their project as the world's largest WLAN network, Taiwan's government wants to not only cover urban areas like Taipei with wireless Internet access but it also wants to tie these networks together with cellular services as part of an M-Taiwan initiative called iB3G, or Internet Beyond 3G.
The first WLAN-GSM services will be rolled out by Taiwanese operators during the first quarter of 2005, said Shiaw-Shian Yu, managing director of the National Information and Communication Initiative's iB3G Office, in an e-mail. Those services will initially be available in three cities - Taipei, Taichung and Kaoshiung - and will be expanded to a further seven cities by 2008, he said.
By then, the government expects to see more than 4 million cellular subscribers in Taiwan using dual-mode handsets that support WLAN and GSM networks, Yu said.
"This project will give people a handy, low-cost broadband network access device. People will be able to use broadband services that they can now only access through a PC," Yu said.
Some of those services were on display earlier this week at a government-sponsored event in Taipei that was attended by several companies, including operators Chunghwa Telecom and Far EasTone Telecommunications.
Among the offerings on display was a streaming TV service developed by Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) in cooperation with two local television stations. The service lets users watch TV using a WLAN-enabled cell phone such as BenQ's P50 handset, which is expected to ship sometime next year. A music download service and a WLAN-based push-to-talk service were also on display.
Using WLAN to offer these services offers the benefit of lower costs and higher bandwidth than using alternatives, such as 3G technology, said Teddy Yu, a spokesman for ITRI's Computer and Communications Research Laboratories.
The services that were put on display here this week are just the beginning of Taiwan's WLAN-GSM push. The government has set aside NT$7 billion of the NT$37 billion M-Taiwan budget to promote the development of WLAN-GSM services.
The government hopes that by pushing for the deployment of WLAN-GSM services, Taiwanese hardware makers will be able to take an industry-leading role in the development of WLAN-GSM products, iB3G's Yu said.
"Taiwan has been very successful being a quick follower but (local companies) don't know how to be a leader. This project actually has encouraged many companies to try to be leaders," he said.