Whither Intelligent Island?

SO MUCH for the ''Intelligent Island''.

With just 250,000 broadband subscribers out of almost two million Internet users here, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore has declared that broadband usage has surpassed its targets, and will cease subsidies to the industry on April Fool's Day this year.

More ambitious uses of broadband have been limited for reasons that are cultural, legal & social rather than technological.

No kidding. What happened to the dream of a wired nation?

When the IT2000 masterplan was unveiled in 1992, and Singapore ONE initiated in 1996, we were meant to become the world's first fully broadband-connected nation - a networked utopia of interactive multimedia and e-commerce.

Even Bill Gates bought the sales pitch enough to mention it in his 1996 book, The Road Ahead.

Remember the hype: ''Video-on-demand'', ''distance learning'', ''tele-conferencing'', ''5.5 Mbps Internet access''?

To say the least, broadband price and performance to date have been less than satisfactory.

And after April 1 this year, the set-up could cost households hundreds of dollars apiece.

A far cry from the cyber-topia we were promised?

Dig this - South Korean Netizens already enjoy wider broadband service at a fraction of our prices, according to NetValue.

Yet, research consultancy Frost and Sullivan projects that broadband will hit 1.33 million users here by 2006 (''Booming Broadband'', Business Times, March 5, 2001).

To reach that target, the current customer base would have to increase five-fold in the next five years.

Sounds like a tall order, given the present level of services and prices.

Still, five years is a whole generation when you're talking about the wired world.

But to salvage the broadband dream, some critical issues will have to be resolved.

Call it the four Cs:

The first is cost.

IDA's Household IT survey last year revealed that consumers are still price-sensitive when it comes to getting online.

So higher sign-up costs are going to turn away potential newcomers.

Surfers know fast Internet access must come at a premium, but clearly prefer a flat-rate access charge - like that offered by SCV's cable modem service - to a usage-based cost.

The upcoming addition of PacNet to the flat-rate broadband market is a long-overdue move that might just attract more users.

That's assuming we even need broadband.

After all, why pay exorbitant rates when you can surf with a 56 kbps modem for the price of a phone call?

The industry has yet to deliver killer-app local broadband content worth users' dollars.

Forget high-bandwidth eye-candy: The online services users truly value - e-mail, news, shopping, banking, info searches - are easily accessible with a dial-up modem; even on the go with a laptop.

And with Napster in legal trouble, users have one good reason less to use broadband: Free software and music downloads.

Other more ambitious uses of broadband - such as telecommuting and distance-learning - have been limited for reasons that are cultural, legal and social rather than technological.

Online security and privacy are still key issues, as is the preference for human interaction.

Granted, the success of broadband is a chicken-and-egg matter.

It's dependent on the healthy growth of both content and customers in parallel.

One approach: bring in core tenants to anchor broadband usage.

Well-developed Government services - with nationwide application - could jump-start broadband with truly useful content. E-government has yet to take off in a big way.

For a start, why not wire up Government offices, schools and community clubs, adding 120,000 public servants, plus students and communities, to the critical mass of users?

Central CDC, apparently, has caught on - they're planning to wire up 70 RCs with Net access.

It's a good way to wire our nation - from the grassroots up, with careful customer education and solid services, rather than a top-down marketing campaign and techno hype.

Far better than letting our ''Intelligent Island'' dream go the way of the dotcoms any day.

© alvin pang
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