[email protected] construction is finally underway as the three chosen network operators prepare to enter operation in early January 2007.

iCell, the smallest of the three operators, has already installed some access points in eastern Singapore neighborhoods, including Siglap and Bedok, said Ken Chua, the company's chief executive officer.

Eastern Singapore is the geographic area assigned to iCell by the IDA (Infocomm Development Authority) of Singapore, the government agency that is overseeing the [email protected] project. The other two operators, SingTel (Singapore Telecommunications) and QMax, were awarded contracts to cover the northern and western areas of the country, respectively.

For its portion of the network, iCell expects to deploy around 1,000 access points, Chua said. About 25 percent of these will be in place by 1 January 2007, as required by the IDA. The company, which is using mesh-networking equipment from Firetide, plans to expand its coverage over the coming year, he said.

The [email protected] project is among the largest deployments to date for Firetide, which was worked with iCell on other projects, said Mike Downes, Firetide's vice president of marketing communications.

In addition to iCell, other operators have been preparing for the launch of [email protected] Fixed and mobile service provider SingTel this month made its Wi-Fi service available for free and offered users the chance to sign up for [email protected] starting in December. SingTel's Wi-Fi service, which covers more than 300 hotspots in Singapore, including fast-food outlets and civic buildings, previously cost S$21 (£7) per month for unlimited access with a S$10.50 sign-up fee.

For the next two years, [email protected] will offer users a free 512K bps (bits per second) Wi-Fi connection. To get online, users must register with one of the operators to access the service, but will be able to roam seamlessly across all three networks, Chua said.

When completed, [email protected] will cover locations across Singapore, although most of the country won't be covered by the network. A list of Singapore neighbourhoods and locations that will be covered by [email protected] is available online, including maps of each planned coverage area.

The IDA wants to see [email protected] increase Singapore's usage of wireless broadband services and has worked with operators to select areas for coverage that will serve the most users, Chau said. In addition, operators must meet the IDA's subscriber targets, he said, noting that construction of the networks is being subsidised by the government.

The Singapore government will cover the first S$30m (about £10.2m) of the estimated S$100m (about £33.9m) needed to build the three networks for [email protected], iCell said.