Why Tourists Probably Can't Register for Wireless@SG Online

wirelessatsgAs someone who works in cafes all the time, one of DK’s biggest complain about Wireless@SG was that it was really difficult for tourists to register for an account to use Wireless@SG, and I don’t deny that this is something to be concerned or frustrated about. While I initially could not think of a valid explanation why registration for them was done in such a way (they cannot register online like Singapore citizens, but have to visit a costumer service counter to register in person), I figured that they probably have a valid reason to do that.

Today, this thought literally rose up inside me on my way home on my own (no joke, I wasn’t even thinking about Wireless@SG or anything tech at that point of time for that matter) that gave a very possible explanation as why this was done. When I thought about it, I went all “Why didn’t I think of that earlier!” While I admit I don’t know the exact reason, I can say that this is an educated guess. In a word: Security.

Security in Electronic Communication Channels in Singapore

If you think about it, almost every electronic communication channel you sign up with today is linked to you. Your mobile phone, your land-line, and even your Internet service at home is linked to you or your business, whether through your NRIC or some other form of personal information. Even if you buy a pre-paid mobile phone SIM card today, you need to provide your NRIC or Passport so that your new mobile phone number is linked to you.

We all know how much Singapore makes security a priority. Then the government comes along and decides to provide free Internet access in as many public places as possible. Surely you wouldn’t expect the government to overlook the security concerns of providing free access to one of the most critical communication channels in Singapore. Are you getting the drift as to where I’m going with this?

When a Singaporean registers today

Today when we register for an account at Wireless@SG, we need to provide our NRIC to link the account to us. Since it’s possible for someone to use another person’s NRIC to register, they’ve added an extra layer of security, and that is to use our mobile phone number to link the account to us, since as mentioned earlier, every mobile phone number in Singapore is linked to an NRIC or Passport number. There is no way to use someone else’s mobile phone number during registration neither, since the service requires you to receive an SMS with a password, making sure that the number you provided really is your number.

By linking every Wireless@SG account with an official identity, should the account be used for anything that could threaten national security, there would be a way to trace who was using the Wireless@SG account, and provide a proper starting point for investigations. Sounds logical, right?

Why Tourists Probably Can’t Be Allowed To Do The Same

There are hundreds of nations in this planet today, each with their own standards. Not every mobile phone number in the world is linked to an identity. Also, having developed an application involving users inputting their personal information, I know that while there’s an algorithm to verify the validity of an NRIC, FIN and Singapore Passport number, there just isn’t any way to verify a foreigner’s passport number. The only way to guarantee that a tourist is providing a genuine identity is by verifying a tourist’s passport physically.

Now, I must mention here that I personally have not witnessed the process that a tourist has to go through at a customer service counter to get a Wireless@SG account, but they would most likely have to provide their passport at the counter the same way one would have to provide their NRIC or Passport at a store counter in order to purchase a prepaid SIM card. If anyone is able to verify this, do let me know.

So as you can already see, the most sure way a tourist would be able to obtain a Wireless@SG account has to be in person. I don’t know about you, but with this in mind, I can’t think of any other way but this.

The Counter-Argument

“Why don’t they just go to some other free hotspot that does not require verification?” is probably the first thing you would throw at me. In my opinion, the government certainly knows that it is impossible to prevent someone from gaining access to the Internet for purposes that would threaten our safety if these people tried hard, but if they can make it difficult for these people, they would take that precaution. Especially since today, majority of the free wireless hotspots in Singapore are Wireless@SG hotspots.

Solutions To This Problem?

NTT likes to says “Don’t complain, provide solutions”. Now that we know a possible reason why tourists can’t just register for a Wireless@SG account online, and that it appears that tourists have no choice but to register in person, what are the things the government could possibly do to help make it easier for them?

Well, one solution I can think of is to allows tourists to register at more places. I personally can’t think of many customer service centers today where a tourist can register for an account, so it would help if tourists could also register at places such as cafes, since tourists would mostly want to access the Internet from a place they can actually sit down at. DK’s frustration at tourists obtaining Wireless@SG accounts at cafes also confirms this suspicion. The difficult part, of course, would be to convince cafes to actually help provide such a service, and to provide it properly while at it. I can forsee that this might be a logistical nightmare as well. So it’s not that easy to solve this problem after all.

If you can think of a better solution with all these in mind, do leave a comment here! Hopefully someone at IDA would notice it, and if it’s good enough and within the restrictions that they have, they might just implement it. Now, that’s being a responsible social media citizen.

In Conclusion

IDA probably has a valid reason for making it harder to register for a Wireless@SG account, and this is a very probable and logical reason why that is the case. If this was true (if you know the real reason, and would like to confirm/debunk this, do let me know), then it is not going to be an easy task to make the situation we have today easier. I hope this sounds logical to you.

I just want to remind you that I came up with this explanation solely through deductions and educated guesses. I don’t work for IDA or the government, neither do I have any insider information regarding this matter.

  • Just thought of another argument against this. “Why can KL let you register online even if you’re not Malaysian?”

    If you ask me? All I’m going say is that the Singapore government tends to be very good at finding blind spots. That’s all I’m saying 😉

  • NTT

    Well said..

    How about allowing Tourists to use their Visa numbers to register?? I know that the Tourist Name – Visa Number database might be only accessible to ICA for now, but if that could be used to verify the identity as well, it could work..

    • That’s a good point. But not everyone needs a VISA to enter Singapore, right? Speaking of VISA, maybe using a credit card number might work too. But then again, not everyone has credit cards right?

  • dk

    I think most country can link the mobile number to the owner. After 911, most places do registration even for prepaid card. So why not open the registration to mobile phone number around the world? Malaysia is doing that for their Wireless@KL. And I think it is a good solution.

    Another way is to provide more counters for tourist to register. Or work with hotel to get them help their guest register for wireless@sg.

    Or link to a credit card like what NTT suggested.

    • The problem is that it’s “most” not “all” countries. When it comes to security, they can’t afford for “most”. I’d just find a country where I can buy a pre-paid card without any ID and register if that’s the case.

      Actually the Visa NTT suggested is not referring to credit cards, but travel Visas.

    • The hotel idea is good though. It would be better if they actually put a note in their room to let them know that is possible. Better than they end up only discovering that they have to register at the counter when they’re sitting down in Starbucks.

  • Tan

    There will be cost for naking it easier for tourist to register at hotels or cafes, who will foot them? I think the cost factor is very important. Afterall there is no point if you can only get a few hotels or cafes to participate in it. But the cost of implementing it in ALL the cafes and hotels in Singapore is going to be astronomical.

    Since all tourists come in through either the airport, ferry port or immigration at woodlands or tuas, it make sense to just set up counter specifically at the exit of the transit area. And of course we can do more to bring awareness to them so if they know they have to use it, register it before heading into town.

    That wouldnt settle all situations as some will feel like using it when they are already in town. In such cases, maybe can have 1 booth somewhere in town to let these people register? A convenient place that is. Maybe in the heart of Orchard road where tourists are.

    Or alternatively, can work with hotels to verify their identification like scanning of passport and fax it to the main office.

    • Yep you’re right about cost.

      There are already booths today at the airport etc thought I agree they could use more “marketing” to let people know about the booths…

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  • NTT

    Great discussion guys… We have some ideas.. We could totally talk about this on one of the episodes of 65Bits and then hopefully get someone from IDA/MDA to listen/read them.. That’s the least we can do right??



  • DK

    Daniel: We can simply blacklist those places where they don’t register the ID of the Pre-Paid card. At least the process is convenient for most countries since they do register the Pre-Paid card.

    Another way is to go thru credit card. Charge a small token (Maybe $1 or $2) for tourist who wants to register for Wireless@sg account and make them use credit card for payment.

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  • Firstapril90

    With wireless@sg many places like MacDonalds, Starbucks, Coffee Beans etc have stopped providing free wifi to their customers. With the tough registrations, I can sympathize with the poor tourist who wanted just to read their emails with their smart phones. Even for locals, I tried to register an account for my son using his phone but failed several times because of the many security features of the online form and the small screen of the phone. I then had to redo it with my notebook at home. With this regards, I really appreciate all the free wifis I get while travelling in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and many of the big cities in China. All I need is the WEP provided when making a purchase. They are definitely more tourist friendly then Singapore.

Daniel Tsou is our fabulous host, who decides mostly what we talk about and basically calls the shots, Yes, he does. I, writer of this bio on Mr Tsou is very much afraid that by commiting this post to words, I will be dragged off in the night by a black Truck, or a Segway more like. Other than that, Daniel is tall, lived for a period of time in Venezuela and Spain, and is enthusiastic for all things tech.
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