Surfers switch on to free wireless connection

Internet surfing is now possible on the piste

Internet users in the city of St Gallen and tourists visiting ski resorts in Riederalp, canton Valais, can now surf the web for free.

This content was published on April 13, 2007 minutes

Two separate projects to provide cost-free wireless connections went online this month, the first of their kind in Switzerland. However, they have drawn some criticism for adding to rising "electronic smog" levels.

St Gallen, in northeast Switzerland, opened the way for free surfing on April 1 after a three-and-a-half month trial run. Users must pay an initial SFr100 ($83) to buy a router box for their homes that gives them unlimited surf time without additional charges.

The popular Riederalp resort in the south of the country has installed the first part of an expanding project to provide "open wireless" internet access without any payments for connection or infrastructure.

"We wanted to make the internet open to everyone in the city, regardless of how wealthy they are, and to people who previously had no access," Chris Thomann, of project coordinating group Wireless St Gallen, told swissinfo.

The Riederalp tourist board revealed a more commercial motive for providing free wireless connection.

"There was a big demand from our guests because nowadays most people travel with laptops. It is good business to respond to the wishes of our clients," spokesman Alexander Buchner told swissinfo.

"Visitors want to check their emails, send photographs and check their shares. They want recreation and sport but also want to be connected to the world at the same time."

Health alarms

But critics warn that the profusion of new transmitters and routers is adding to increasing levels of radiation, or electronic smog, in Switzerland.

Watchdog group Gigaherz believes emissions from wireless internet could damage health in much the same way as theories linking cancer to the use of mobile phones.

"The biggest problem is that the routers have to be in people's homes and that will expose them to levels of poisonous radiation," Gigaherz spokesman Ulrich Jakob told swissinfo.

Chris Thomann dismissed the fears, saying that there was insufficient proof to link radio waves to health problems. And he pointed out that wireless routers emit far lower levels of radiation than mobile phones that come into closer proximity to people.

"I make the comparison to the first time steam trains were introduced. Then some people complained that they were dirty and it seems that today some people are still against new technology," Alexander Buchner said.

Switzerland's dominant telecoms provider, Swisscom, already provides wireless internet connections throughout most of the country, but users have to pay.

Wireless local area network (WLAN) projects in Berlin, Vienna, Bern, Zurich and Lucerne – that are similar to St Gallen and Riederalp - also charge people to use the service.

Swisscom admitted that the free WLAN projects have added to competition in the market but would not speculate on how damaging they might be.

"We are observing this development with interest," said spokesman Josef Frey.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

The costs of providing the Swiss free wireless services are being met respectively by the St Gallen city authorities and the Riederalp tourist board, together with sponsors.

St Gallen estimates that some 300 routers have been bought and boasts some 9,000 hits to the service since it began in December last year.

The St Gallen project was coordinated by the organisation Openwireless Switzerland and the city council, with help from the Rapperswil College of Technology and the University of St Gallen.

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In brief

Wireless local area network (WLAN) is the linking of two or more computers using radio waves rather than wires.

It gives people greater mobility by allowing them to log on in a wireless zone with their laptops, but the signal has a limited range and strength.

Last year Google, the world's biggest internet search engine, provided free wireless access to the Californian town Mountain View, where the organisation is headquartered.

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