Sept. 23, 1998
SINGAPORE - Rich, small and smart, Singapore seems an ideal place for experiments in pioneering technology.
But the world's first project to wire an entire nation has gotten off to a disappointing start. People's cyberneeds have turned out humbler than expected.
The government announced plans in 1996 to link every household, school and office in the city-state to an ultra-fast network offering information, shopping, entertainment and Internet access.
The project received support from some big, high-tech companies, including investments by Microsoft and Motorola.
More than a year into Singapore One - for "One Network for Everyone" - the government has spent about $86 million for the fiber-optic network around the island. Multinational technology and information companies and local banks have invested an additional $114 million.
High-speed access to Singapore One is now available to 90 percent of the city's 3.1 million people, either via a special telephone link or through a line provided by Singapore's cable television operator.
Almost all the services on Singapore One are also available via regular Internet servers. But the network offers a speedy, reliable connection and lots of snazzy multimedia that is impossible to enjoy with a much slower conventional telephone line through a computer modem.
"The key selling point is the speed and the multimedia dimension," said Tay Lay Kheng of the government-run National Computer Board. "Internet is still largely text-based. And on Singapore One, you can do a virtual walk through the apartment you want to buy or rent."
A Singapore One user can also call up a "movie on demand" from the network's budding video library and watch it on a personal computer.
The project seemed bound for success in Singapore, where computer use starts in kindergarten, 41 percent of the people own PCs and the government encourages the use of information technology across all segments of society.
People already were being urged to use the Internet for everything from matchmaking and filing lawsuits to ordering taxis and submitting tax forms. The elderly, blue-collar workers and others who missed computer courses in their formative years are visited by a "cyberbus" equipped with PCs and instructors.
But only 30,000 Singaporeans - just 1 percent of the population - use Singapore One, Tay said. Even fewer actually subscribe to the service.
Singapore One is all wired up, but it has nowhere to go, said Raymond Chia, a 33-year-old manager.
"You can visit government Web sites and find out what plays in movie theaters, but otherwise there's not much else to do" that's not on the Internet, he said.
Most people still mainly use cyber networks to communicate with each other, Tay said. For that purpose, the regular Internet is cheaper.
There are about 400,000 regular Internet users in Singapore, and their average monthly bill is about $14, one-third less than a Singapore One subsidized rate of $20.
As for electronic shopping, a recent survey found that only 6 percent of Internet users in Singapore actually buy something online. Of those who try, some discover unforeseen complications.
"Almost every time I order groceries from Cold Storage (Singapore's main grocery chain), they call me back and ask if they can substitute a strawberry yogurt with some other flavor," one woman said. "It drives me nuts."
Despite Singapore One's low use, the government remains committed to making the island one of the world's cyberhubs.
Its 1997 Information Technology Master Plan called for spending $2.9 billion over the next five years to boost the cyberculture.
Perhaps optimistically, the government expects half of all Singaporeans to be wired into Singapore One by 2001, either through PCs, public kiosks or special network computers connected to TV screens.
"Everything that exists in the physical world is being replicated in some form in cyberspace," George Yeo, minister for information and the arts, recently told Singaporeans.
He said the government needed the public's help in turning Singapore into a cyberhaven.
"What we have to build up is a total environment which is supportive of electronic commerce," he said.
Newsbit furnished by:
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Thanks Tim and Anna!