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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Gears Up for Wi-Fi Revolution

MTA sign in T.G.I. Friday's restaurant on Tverskaya advertising free access to a Wi-Fi network for its customers.
Moscow's Wi-Fi revolution is about to hit the metro -- before eventually reaching every street corner and back alley in the city. The only problem is, nobody seems sure exactly when.

In the meantime, the capital will have to make do with explosive growth in traditional Wi-Fi hot spots, which should cover practically all cafes, restaurants, hotels and airports in Moscow by 2007.

Local operator Comstar has begun work on wiring metro stations to provide broadband-speed wireless Internet access to Wi-Fi-enabled pocket computers, phones and laptops. But the company is declining to give a definite date when its service will begin or say whether the coverage will eventually reach beyond the stations and into the hundreds of kilometers of tunnels beneath the city.

Comstar is currently studying potential demand at the city's busiest metro stations. While refusing to give any rollout date, spokeswoman Yulia Yasinovskaya said operations could begin by the end of the year. J'son & Partners analyst Anna Orlova estimated that the technical challenges of covering central metro stations could be overcome within a year, but said that development would have to follow demand.

If Comstar chooses not to wire the tunnels, they could eventually be left as just about the only area without wireless access as a new generation of Wi-Fi looks set to take in every square meter of real estate in the capital. But again, it's hard to say exactly when.

Several companies are looking into WiMax, a new generation of Wi-Fi offering speeds of up to seven times faster than the current technology with coverage up to 50 kilometers -- giving it the potential to wire a city the size of Moscow using a handful of base stations.

Current commercial Wi-Fi hot spots offer speeds from about 1 megabits per second, 20 times faster than dial-up connections, at a range of up to 90 meters.

A WiMax network could be in place in Moscow by 2008 or 2009, according to Boris Ovchinnikov, a J'son analyst, but a receiver could then cost $200, which would make WiMax an expensive option.

But before the hardware price allows WiMax to go mass market, it should provide a boon to elite cottage owners in the Moscow region, who have deeper pockets and fewer wire-line alternatives. Outside the big cities, where there are fewer problems with frequency clashes, the first WiMax network should be up soon after the technology is available, most likely in early 2006.

Igor Khromov, general director of MediaSeti, said his company was planning to set up its first WiMax network in Samara in spring 2006. Mobile WiMax, enabling users to log on directly from a laptop, would need at least three or four years to develop, he said.

In the meantime, Moscow has the explosive growth in traditional Wi-Fi hot spots, set to expand to over 500 by the end of next year, from 22 in 2003, according to J'son & Partners.

Orlova predicted that by 2007, practically all cafes, restaurants, hotels and airports in Moscow will have Wi-Fi access.

The only question is how these new web services will be priced.

Currently, just over half of Moscow's hot spots offer free access -- most of them under the Yandex.WiFi brand name. In places where charging customers is more realistic, like airports and hotels, companies charge anywhere between $4 and $15 per hour for access.

Hotels usually charge guests directly, while major operators such as Tascom, Moscom and Comstar sell their own branded cards.

Comstar recently announced that it had joined an embryonic Wi-Fi roaming program that would allow customers to use credit from one provider to access a rival's network. Soon it may even be working on the metro.