Moscow metro's Wi-Fi revolution as city gets wired
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin built Moscow's spectacularly beautiful metro as an example to the world, a symbol of "radiant Communist future".
Now under strongman Vladimir Putin there are plans to make it the most connected in the world, with free, fast Wi-Fi even in the deepest tunnels.
By the end of the year, all lines of the Russian capital's famous subway system—the world's second busiest, with some seven million passengers a day—will be connected to broadband Internet.
Opened in the 1930s, the metro was as much a monument to Soviet ambition as a transport system, with extremely deep lines and stations staggeringly decorated with mosaics, frescos, stained glass and heavy chandeliers.
Now organisers say its internet connectivity will be equally impressive, letting busy commuters check email and even download the classics of Russian and world literature for free while riding to work.
Moscow commuters, renowned as voracious and sophisticated readers, can now flick between Tolstoy and Orwell's 1984 depending on their moods.
"There is nothing like it in the world," the wireless network's operator, Maxima Telecom, told AFP.
"In some cities, Wi-Fi is available in the stations but not in the tunnels. Moscow is the only city in Europe where the service is available in trains."
Some 710,000 passengers in 3,500 of the metro's 5,000 carriages already connect daily to the network.
Maxima Telecom was the sole major mobile operator in Russia that dared in 2013 to join the ambitious government-initiated project for which no public money is being spent.
The company, which committed to invest an estimated one billion rubles ($21 million/17 million euros) to fund the initiative, hopes for a return on investment from ads which pop up on the page through which visitors must pass to access the Internet.
The home page offers both free and paid-for access broadcasts to public television and radio stations, movies, electronic books and magazines.
The IT industry is showing rapid growth in Russia, but in recent years—which saw Putin consolidating his grip on power—fears increased about censorship and other political factors that could stall its further development.
In October, Putin denied that he intends to impose "total control" over cyberspace, but recent reports said new restrictions filtering Internet content nationwide could be adopted by parliament by the end of this year.
Russia's leading IT companies—such as search engine Yandex, Mail.ru e-mail platform, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki social networks—have long outperformed their US competitors on the domestic market.
In Moscow, where living standards are considerably higher than in the rest of Russia, smartphones are ubiquitous and nearly all restaurants and bars offer free Wi-Fi access—often accessible without a password.
Keen to improve Moscow's dull image of a city of infernal traffic jams and endless winter, local authorities have stepped up efforts to broaden Internet access in public spaces.
In 2011, Internet giant Yandex launched a ride-hailing smartphone application, Yandex.Taxi, which "created a shock" in Moscow, the head of the service, Grigori Dergachev, told AFP.
"There are 10,000 cars online and one can have a cab anywhere in less than ten minutes" instead of the hour required before the services was introduced.
Despite Russia's economic problems and fierce competition by rivals Uber and Israeli GetTaxi, the number of Yandex.Taxi customers is growing rapidly and just exceeded one million orders per month, said Dergachev. The service "is very profitable".
In September, Yandex launched another service, Master, that helps Muscovites find a plumber, mover, cleaner or other forms of help in their households, later expanding it to Saint-Petersburg.
"The taxi revolution has already happened (...) and Moscow is one of the leading cities in the world in terms of online orders," said Lev Volozh, who was behind the launch of Yandex.Taxi and Yandex.Master.
"For services, we hope to get the same result."
© 2014 AFP