15th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) In the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong, a city that prides itself on its skyscrapers and financial prowess, a significant portion of its rural population grapples with internet speeds that hark back to an earlier digital era. Despite the government’s ambitious declarations to transform Hong Kong into a smart city, the reality on the ground, particularly in remote villages, tells a starkly different story. The rollout of fibre optic infrastructure, a cornerstone of this smart city transformation, has been lethargic, with completion not expected until 2026.

Hong Kong’s journey towards becoming a smart city has been fraught with technological mishaps. Systems like ‘Health Code’ have experienced total outages, electronic voter registries have malfunctioned during crucial council elections, and the ‘i-Invigilation (HKDSE)’ app faced sudden failures, requiring manual intervention during examinations—a scenario described by one exam supervisor as a “total collapse.” These incidents are symptomatic of a broader issue: despite its technological ambitions, Hong Kong is still far from being a truly smart city.

In 2018, the government launched a HK$700 million initiative aimed at expanding fiber optic networks to 235 villages across the New Territories and outlying islands, aiming to enhance internet infrastructure and provide residents with stable, high-speed broadband services. To date, however, only 68% of the project has been completed, with more than 160 villages now connected, benefiting approximately 80,000 villagers. Additionally, submarine fiber optic cables connecting Hong Kong Island to Lamma Island, Lantau Island to Cheung Chau, and Lantau Island to Peng Chau have been laid, with the project expected to benefit around 110,000 villagers by 2026 or sooner.

Despite these advancements, the pace of the rollout has drawn criticism. In areas where life moves slower, subpar internet is not just an inconvenience but a barrier to participating in the modern digital economy. The government, with its considerable resources and self-proclaimed smart city ambitions, must recognise that “time is money and efficiency is life.” The completion of internet infrastructure improvements cannot afford to lag and should be expedited to allow villagers to enjoy the benefits of faster internet access sooner rather than later.

The fishing village of Tai O, previously reliant on basic copper wire telecommunications, saw a transformation mid-last year when part of the village was covered by the fiber network. A local retailer, who has lived in Tai O for over half a century, recounted how the pre-fiber era’s meager 8 Mbps speeds and frequent disconnections hampered electronic payments. With the advent of fiber, internet speeds catapulted to 1,000 Mbps, eliminating transaction issues and enhancing leisure and business activities online.

Similarly, in Mui Wo, the fibre optic rollout under the subsidy scheme has significantly boosted broadband services, facilitating faster internet speeds and enabling teachers to arrange interactive online learning. One teacher noted that the fibre network supports 20 to 30 tablets simultaneously, allowing for the integration of games into online lessons, which enhances student engagement.

As Hong Kong strives to live up to its smart city moniker, the government must address systemic shortcomings and ensure that technological upgrades do not result in repeated failures. The Innovation and Technology Bureau needs to maintain stringent oversight to fulfill its responsibilities effectively. For projects like the fiber optic network rollout, which are crucial for improving the quality of life in remote areas, the government must accelerate its efforts. Without completing these projects swiftly, Hong Kong risks perpetually lagging behind, chasing advancements that seem forever out of reach.

The disparity between Hong Kong’s urban technological advancements and rural connectivity needs highlights a critical area of focus for the government. If Hong Kong is to achieve its smart city goals, it cannot allow the digital divide to widen further. The government must reinforce its commitment to these projects, ensuring that every village and every villager not only catches up with the digital age but thrives in it. By fostering a truly connected city, Hong Kong can pave the way for a future where technology enhances the lives of all its citizens, not just those in its urban core.