Internet addicts in Taipei can rejoice: The city government has launched a free wireless Internet service called Taipei Free Public Wi-Fi that covers much of the MRT system and municipal offices and buildings, with plans to expand to outdoor spaces and major commercial and residential areas next month.
I’ve tested Taipei’s new free Wi-Fi at a handful of MRT stations and a public library, and so far, despite a few kinks, it works like it should. The connection is not blazing fast. With a bandwidth cap of 512 kB/sec, it is not ideal for watching YouTube videos or any other Web sites that stream video. But for the basics, like checking your e-mail, Facebook account, or making phone calls using Skype, Taipei Free gets the job done.
And it’s hard to argue with “free.” The service is a boon for Taipei denizens who like being constantly connected but can’t be bothered with paid services such as Wifly.
Taipei Free Public Wi-Fi requires that its users register using a local mobile phone number, and for residents, the process is a breeze. Register on your smartphone or computer wherever you find a connection labeled “TPE-Free,” and you can be online within minutes.
But for a visitor or a tourist in Taipei, the service is not as convenient as it might appear.
The only way to register as a non-resident without a mobile phone number is in person at a “Travel Service Center” with your passport or an exit-entry permit. This means making your way to Songshan Airport, Taipei Main Station or a designated hotel and presenting your papers and an e-mail address.
In the larger scheme of things, this is a trivial, minor hassle — you only have to run around once for your ticket to free wireless in Taipei. But it’s no fun to learn the hard way. I happened to observe firsthand the unfulfilled promise of free Wi-Fi for a pair of Japanese backpackers, a man and woman who looked to be in their mid-20s.
While waiting for a friend at Liuzhangli MRT Station (六張犁捷運站), I saw the two grimacing in front of a laptop at the Taipei Free table. They were obviously having trouble getting online, and I watched them engage in a back-and-forth conversation with the station master, who seemed to know nothing about the service. (Taipei Free is not connected with the MRT and the staff is not obligated to help with Internet service problems.)
After making a few phone calls, the station master came out and told them they had to register for the service. He pointed to the 0800 service number on the Taipei Free sign, suggesting that they call. That didn’t help, as they had no phone and there was no public payphone in sight. I decided to be neighborly and asked the couple if they needed help.
“We need to get online because we don’t have the address and phone number of our hotel. It’s in our e-mail,” one of the flustered backpackers told me.
Lucky for them, I had my laptop, and we were able to get online through my iPhone’s 3G connection. They checked their e-mail, got the address, did a quick search on Google Maps and went on their merry way. It only took a few minutes.
While this might be a lesson in sticking to old-fashioned technologies like pen and paper, it made me think of how a good service like Taipei Free fell short when it could have come in handy. The backpacking couple (and the station master) would have been spared a bit of grief if they were able to register for the service right then and there.