What Singapore’s fourth cellphone operator can offer

May 14th, 2015 | by Alfred Siew
What Singapore’s fourth cellphone operator can offer
source: iStockphoto

Source: iStockphoto

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim hit the nail on the head this week when he said Singapore’s much-anticipated fourth cellphone operator had to innovate and push existing players to innovate as well.

This can’t be just another telco, he also said in Parliament, but one that would spur competition and benefit consumers.

So far, two players – OMGTel and MyRepublic – have been making noises about their bids to be the new entrant to the market. How can this benefit consumers? Here are three ways.

1. Bundle in more mobile data

Nearing the end of the month, a warning pops up on your phone to say your data usage is almost up. This is a kill-joy that has become too common after telcos gradually cut their free data bundles in recent years.

MyRepublic has said it would make 10GB and 12GB data plans the norm rather than premium offerings. That’s good news for folks who use a lot of Facebook, Skype and Whatsapp, instead of voice and SMS that are still a big part of most cellphone plans today.

Will this spark another race to provide more mobile data to users? Consumers will hope so, like how bandwidth at home has become abundant with 1Gbps home broadband plans commonplace now.

2. Better coverage and connections

4G coverage has been fine in Singapore of late, after a number of hefty fines for poor network connections in the past few years. However, things can still be improved, say, at crowded areas and underground train stations.

Wi-Fi is being rolled out at these places, so users can be “handed over” to these faster networks instead of the regular cellphone networks to lessen the load during peak hours. Singtel is already doing this.

Can the new entrant improve on this? Possibly, if it offers a totally seamless experience, through the new Heterogeneous Network, or HetNet, technology on trial in Singapore.

If it can ensure that users continue watching a YouTube video smoothly while transiting from one network to another, then that’s great news for folks on the go.

Better yet, if it can automatically sense which network is less congested and connects a user to it, that would improve the commute each day for millions of users.

3. Simpler plans

Telcos know what users want – more data – yet they are leery of giving too much away and losing control of their traditional cash cows, which are voice calls and SMSes. They don’t want to end up paving the highway for someone else, like WhatsApp, to earn all the big bucks.

Can the new entrant do things differently? One way is to provide what many users are seeking – very few minutes of voice calls and lots of mobile data – in simple, easy-to-understand plans.

The move towards Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is well underway. Today, you can make 4G calls and, of course, Skype and WhatsApp calls, with a data connection.

Can the new player go big on mobile data and Internet calls, instead of complicating things with X minutes of voice calls and Y number of SMSes, which many users are moving away from?

Of course, you can already buy data-only plans from telcos today. The challenge for the new entrant would be providing such plans, while ensuring that voice quality is close to what users expect now.

Questions remain

There’s no guarantee that a new player will instantly improve things, of course. The mobile market has gone through cycles of heightened competition as well as slow downs.

In 2009, telcos pushed out generous 12GB data plans to attract iPhone users. This was reversed in 2012, when they started to cut the free data bundles for most plans to as low as 1GB to recoup their investments in network equipment.

It’s also telling that many foreign telcos have stayed away from the mature Singapore market in the past. When the government opened up the airwaves for bidding as recently as 2013, the auction attracted no new entrants.

Even when a new player, Virgin Mobile, entered the fray in 2001, it lasted about a year before quitting with only 30,000 subscribers in a tough market.

What’s different this time, perhaps, is that users are increasingly looking to not just cheaper options but better connectivity and simpler interfaces. If the fourth telco can bring that in, it could stand a chance and benefit users ultimately.

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