MANILA, JANUARY 15, 2008 (STAR) By Eden Estopace - If sipping cappuccino or latte espresso while browsing the Web in an outdoor café is your idea of passing time or chilling out, be glad. Be very glad. A start-up company is working to blanket Metro Manila and the country’s key cities with free Wi-Fi access.

You still need to sit in a café or a resto, though. Or in a park, a mall alleyway, a food court, a nook in school or office, and you still need to buy the coffee or your favorite smoothie. But you get to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi broadband for free.

But what’s the catch?

The company that provides the service says there’s no catch. This service is supported by advertisements, which pay for the service. You only need to register to use the service, download an application onto your laptop and you start using it anywhere there is a so-called WiGO hotspot.

Free Wi-Fi on the go is not a new concept. But the world’s key Wi-Fi-enabled cities were powered by public Wi-Fi networks set up by the government, universities or corporate philanthropists. These endeavors have aided Wi-Fi’s march from expensive to affordable to free.

In the Philippines, this emerging free Wi-Fi access service is not courtesy of a government initiative or corporate social responsibility but supported financially by advertisements.

Russ Alfonso, marketing director of WiGO Corp., explains that when a user avails himself of the free Wi-Fi service, a persistent toolbar appears on the person’s desktop, which displays ads and cannot be removed by the user unless the Internet connection is terminated. Users are also required to be open to permission-based marketing.

“Internet advertisement in this country is still in its infancy,” admits Alfonso. “But it is fast gaining ground as evidenced by the last Internet marketing conference held in the country. There is strong interest from advertisers.”

The WiGO toolbar, which appears on a user’s desktop, measures 1 x 8 inches and currently features trial ads. So far, Russo says advertisers are happy with the results of the trial run as the WiGO technology can accurately measure the impressions the ads generated, who accessed the service, when it was accessed and how often.

The profile of today’s Wi-Fi users — 18 to 45 years old, students and professionals, college-educated, computer-savvy and belongs to the upper A-B economic bracket — is also the niche group usually targeted by marketers.

“This is actually a new way of community building,” says Russo.

Freedom to connect

The WiGO initiative, says Liza de los Reyes, WiGO Corp. chief operating officer, was inspired by, among other things, the diminishing prices of laptops in the market which encourages sales, the rise of Wi-Fi-blanketed communities in Metro Manila and the growing number of so-called “road warriors” or young urban professionals and students who thrive on connectivity.

Statistics provided by the company show that the Internet population in the Philippines in 2006 was 13.5 million, or a penetration rate of 15.4 percent. This is expected to double by 2009.

Interestingly, the online population has grown at a rate of 291 percent since 2000 and Internet users, on average, spend 2.3 hours per day checking e-mail, 1.6 hours on online community building activities, 2.7 hours on instant messaging applications, and another three hours on other Internet activities.

The Philippine online gaming market was worth $10 million with 350,000 subscribers way back in 2004, according to research firm IDC.

WiGO officials are betting on this very encouraging Internet trends and predicts that mobile computing will gain more ground in the years to come.

According to WiGO, laptop computers already outsell desktop computers in a 60:40 ratio, which it attributes to more mobile lifestyles and cheaper laptop prices.

“We see this trend continuing, thus our aggressive deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, “ says De los Reyes.

“We are building a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots for a more literate, more dynamic global society,” adds Russo.

Rollout plans

The WiGO hotspots are currently located at the Rockwell Powerplant Mall, Bel-Air Village, LKG Tower Food Odyssey and PBCOM Tower’s Food Patio in Makati, National Library in Manila, and Shakey’s Rada, also in Makati.

Russo, however, says that very soon, the whole Metro Manila and key cities nationwide will have WiGO hotspots as the company is working out deals with various establishments, buildings and offices, and universities.

As Wi-Fi hotspots are known to attract customer traffic, Russo is confident that the free Wi-Fi access concept will soon catch up with most establishments and with the public.

For partner establishments, WiGO provides superior Wi-Fi broadband connection, free equipment and technical support, and a customer hotline. For users, it is offering two megabits per connection. And the system, Russo says, is expandable to accommodate more customers when more bandwidth is needed.

“What we are giving is a choice,” he adds. “This is purely Filipino ingenuity.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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