More free Wi-Fi networks coming to Beijing's public areas

The free Wi-Fi hotspots require users to give their phone numbers to log-on

Beijing aims to create more free Wi-Fi hotspots across major public areas in the city, including shopping centers and subway stations as part of a city government effort to promote greater Internet use among residents.

At the end of last month, China's capital began offering free Wi-Fi in public areas across seven of the city's districts, and wants to eventually offer free wireless in more of the city's public areas, said Mao Dongjun, a director at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology.

In addition to the seven city districts, Beijing's western Shijingshan district also began offering free Wi-Fi in several shopping centers starting Wednesday, Mao said in an interview on Friday.

In 2010, Beijing had the highest Internet penetration rate of China's provinces and municipalities, at 69.5 percent, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. In contrast, the U.S. has an Internet penetration rate of 78.2 percent, according to Internet World Stats.

The free Wi-Fi networks are meant as a public service for residents. "The telecom operators have developed so many networks, we hope that users can experience and enjoy them," Mao said. At the same time, the city wants to get more residents in the habit of using wireless Internet outside of their home, he said.

Although the networks are free to users, they come with restrictions. When accessing a network, users must first register with their mobile phone numbers. A text message will then be sent to their mobile phone, with a password that will give the users three hours of time on the network.

The provided phone numbers and data will be safe over the network, Mao said. None of the Wi-Fi networks are being operated by the city government. Instead, China's three state-owned telecom operators will be managing them.

China has often required users provide identification before using public Internet networks in the country. Internet cafes require customers to show photo ID before they can use a computer. Starbucks stores in China along with Beijing's Capital Airport also require users to give a phone number or show a passport to log on.

China, however, also has a history of tightly regulating its Internet, and censors content deemed politically sensitive or anti-government. In October, authorities went as far to begin arresting Internet users for starting false rumors on the country's social networking websites.

But Beijing's free Wi-Fi networks are also being developed as the Chinese capital wants to become a leading "wireless city" in the world, according to city officials who spoke at an event on Friday. Other Chinese cities have tried wireless initiatives, but they have generally failed because there was not enough money to support them or the networks had quality problems, Mao said.

Beijing's Wi-Fi networks will be free for three years. After that, Beijing city officials will talk with the carriers about continuing the free networks for another three years, Mao said, adding that the government is compensating the carriers for the costs.

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