TELCOs – BT

Fourth mobile operator may get a call-up

IDA may free up remaining 3G spectrum and pave way for new player, says consultation paper

Singapore’s telco scene could add a splash of colour beyond the current red, green and orange if the Republic’s telecommunications regulator goes ahead with a plan to free up its remaining third-generation (3G) cellular spectrum.

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) is considering parcelling out the final lot of a 3G spectrum which has been left unused for the last nine years.

The move is envisioned to boost cellular bandwidth for the three incumbent operators – Singapore Telecommunications, StarHub and MobileOne – to provide mobile broadband services. At the same time, it could allow a fourth operator to join the trio in providing high-speed mobile services to local users.

‘To meet mobile operators’ increased demand for frequency spectrum so as to enhance their 3G system, and also to open the door for a fourth 3G operator, IDA would like to make available the remaining spectrum in the 3G Band,’ the regulator said in a consultation paper on its website.

This spectrum falls within the 1900 to 2100 Mhz (megahertz) range, the band which is currently used by telcos to offer 3G services such as mobile broadband and video calling.

Four lots within this frequency range were initially put up for auction in March 2001. However, these did not go under the hammer as IDA received offers only from the three local operators.

SingTel, StarHub and M1 eventually paid the reserve price of $100 million each for their 3G licence and the fourth lot was left unclaimed.

However, with the explosive adoption of mobile broadband services in recent years, IDA said it has recently received requests from telecom industry players to release the remaining spectrum.

‘Based on IDA’s statistics, between September 2008 and September 2009, 3G subscriptions grew by over 25 per cent while High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) subscriptions grew by 240 per cent,’ it said.

HSPA, commonly referred to as 3.5G, is the technology being used to power mobile Web surfing on newfangled smart phones. All three operators also provide token-like devices called HSPA modems that can be connected to laptops to enjoy broadband connectivity on the go.

According to IDA’s latest figures, 3G subscribers currently account for close to half of Singapore’s sizeable base of 6.9 million cellphone users.

‘IDA believes that demand for 3G services will continue to grow steadily as more consumers upgrade from 2G to 3G services and take up mobile broadband services,’ it said.

‘To meet this growing consumption, the incumbent mobile operators will need to increase the capacity of their 3G networks. On the other hand, IDA cannot foreclose the possibility that the growing demand for 3G services may also present a viable business case for another operator to enter the 3G market in Singapore,’ the regulator added.

Singapore did have a fourth operator once in 2002 in the form of Virgin Mobile, a joint venture between SingTel and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. However, it failed to make a dent in the market and the company pulled out within a year.

IDA is currently seeking views from the telecom industry and the public on its proposal. Feedback must be submitted by April 26.

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