Taiwan says pioneering WiMAX points way to the future
Residents in Taipei have been able to access wireless mobile Internet services in much of the city since a programme launched by former mayor Ma Ying-jeou was completed in 2006.
However, users were frequently frustrated by glitches while surfing online.
But that is about to change thanks to the introduction of cutting-edge technology called WiMAX -- Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access -- which has a higher capacity, operates across greater distances and allows for voice, video, Internet and other mobile services.
Ma, who is now president, was "much impressed by the technology" when he used it outside the Taipei World Trade Centre, where the WiMAX Expo was staged last week, said Chen Anyi, manager of Taiwan's Institute for Information Industry.
The expo saw 60 exhibitors display a variety of WiMAX-related equipment and application systems, the organisers said.
US chip maker Intel, with other world leaders in the telecoms industry and local manufacturers, used the exhibition as a trial for what Chen described as "pioneering" technology.
Taiwan was chosen as a testing ground for WiMAX because of its much touted WiMAX Ecosystem, J.T. Wang, chairman of Taipei Computer Association said, referring to the supply chains in the telecom manufacturing industry.
"WiMAX services will bring dramatic changes to people's lives and help President Ma realise his dream of building Taipei into a 'cyber city,'" said Chen.
For about 800 Taiwan dollars (26 US dollars) a month consumers will be able to call, play on-line games, receive long-distance medical diagnosis, surf the Internet and watch high-quality television while on the move, he added.
Stephen Tsai, chief technology officer of Global Mobile Corporation, said WiMAX applications would be powerful and innovative.
"Consumers will be receiving any data, any time, anywhere, on any device like cellphones, computers and personal digital assistants," said Tsai.
"For instance, if Taiwanese consumers take photos while travelling to the United States, they can share them immediately with their family members back in Taiwan," Tsai said.
Although it works similarly to WiFI, the great improvement with WiMAX is the widening of the bandwidth. Theoretically, WiMAX has a maximum bandwidth of 75 megabits per second, but in practice, local WiMAX services could run on a bandwidth of around 20 mbps.
"But that is already sufficient to fast transmit high-definition TV programmes smoothly," Chen said, comparing the bandwidth to the up to 7 mbps of the existing third-generation mobile telecommunication technology, which is currently the most advanced Internet wireless system.
A member of staff at Far East Tone, one of the Taiwan's traditional telecom operators, admitted the threat from the pioneering technology.
"WiMAX may not threaten us in a year or two, but it's hard to say from a long-term perspective," he said on condition of anonymity.
The dilemma for the existing operators is that if the traditional telecom consumers defect to WiMAX -- which Chen forecast would be soon -- they may have to scrap their expensively-bought 3G equipment.
Six Taiwanese companies, including Far East Tone and Global Mobile, have been licensed by the government to launch WiMAX, with the first ones starting early next year.
Rich Kerr, of US-based NetWave Wireless, forecast "WiMAX applications would become popular by 2010."
To tap what it sees as the vast market potential, the Taiwan government launched in 2005 a five-year "M-Taiwan" programme, which will cost a projected seven billion Taiwan dollars (231 million US) when it is completed.
Local companies joining the research and development of WiMAX will receive subsidies accounting for up to 50 percent of their cost.
"The government has considered WiMAX the next superstar industry for Taiwan companies," Chen said.
In the next five years, global WiMAX business opportunities would total 74 billion US dollars, according to a forecast by the Institute for Information Industry.
However, the government's efforts have sparked protests from conservation groups, who claim strong radio wave frequencies from WiMAX and existing wireless facilities could pose a health threat, an allegation flatly rejected by the industry.