Imagine nibbling on a croissant in a Paris cafŽ, looking out onto the ancient Notre Dame cathedral, all while surfing the Net on your wireless laptop to look for a good lunch spot. Or window shopping on the Champs-ƒlysŽes while checking e-mail on your PDA.
That’s the vision of Pierre Marteau, director of Telecite, the telecom unit of the RATP, the agency that operates the Paris metro. In April, the RATP, along with partners Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Cisco Systems, installed a dozen silver Wi-Fi antennae outside subway stations along a north-south bus line, hoping to one day create a giant network of Parisian hot spots.
The Telecite project offers Wi-Fi service to anyone with a wireless laptop or PDA along the bus line number 38, which stretches 4.4 miles from the Gare du Nord in the north of the city, to the southern Porte d’Orleans. Users can wirelessly access the Internet from cafŽs, restaurants, the sidewalk and even inside some apartments. After a four-month test period, two Paris Wi-Fi operators, Wifispot and Wifix, are now offering the service for 30 euros to 50 euros (roughly $35 to $58) a month. And several more telecom operators are getting ready to offer Wi-Fi (which the French pronounce “wee-fee”) along the network.
Parisians aren’t Wi-Fi fanatics just yet. During the trial phase from April 1 to Sept. 1, only 424 signed up as regular users. One of those, Jean-Antoine Enrile, 42, a financial consultant who regularly totes his laptop through the city, signed on for the Wifispot service and says the network connection quality is spotty. “The service works very well sometimes, but I often have trouble connecting, so it can be very frustrating,” says Enrile. “They need to work out the kinks.”
Wifispot and Wifix won’t divulge the number of paid subscribers, but they concede that there aren’t many. Europe trails the United States in number of hot spots, and within Europe, France lags behind some others with only 873 hot spots countrywide, compared with 3,505 in Germany and 4,102 in the United Kingdom, according to Gartner. Still, project leaders and analysts say the network holds promise. “It will take time for Wi-Fi to catch on here because few Parisians have Wi-Fi enabled laptops,” said Jean-Paul Figer, Cap Gemini’s CTO. “But I firmly believe we will succeed and install more antennae across the city when the time comes.”
The hot spot market has lost some of its early gleam as users have often been unwilling to pay the price needed for operators to make a profit. But observers say the Paris experiment shows promise because the Wi-Fi antennae are linked by an existing fiber-optic network that runs in the Paris subway tunnels. With the infrastructure already in place, the total investment has been relatively modest?roughly 7,500 euros to 10,000 euros (about $8,700 to $11,700) per hot spot.
Even if Parisians turn up their noses at Wi-Fi for the moment, Marteau sees a bright future for the wireless technology in the City of Light. In January, he says, digital cameras installed on line 38 buses will transmit images using the Wi-Fi network that will enable RATP agents to mail tickets to cars blocking bus lanes. And passengers looking at display screens will receive real-time traffic updates. “We will be able to sell these applications to other city services and other transportation networks,” Marteau says. And one day, he predicts, Intel’s Centrino chips will be as common in Paris as pommes frites.