Perhaps it was coincidence.
Still, when StarHub and M1 unveiled unexpectedly competitive – perhaps even innovative – deals for mobile users last Friday, you couldn’t help but think they were responding to a new rival coming to town.
Singapore came closer to having a fourth telecom operator last week, after the infocomm regulator proposed steep discounts for it to acquire a chunk of the airwaves here.
Days after, M1 and StarHub which comprise slightly more than half of the market reminded any new entrant of the tough market it is entering.
Previously, slashing prices for phones in exchange for two-year contracts was key – now the game seems to be changing.
M1, for example, now lets users roam in six popular overseas destinations by tapping on their local data bundles.
For S$10 more a month, M1 users can sign up for its Data Passport add-on service and avoid what usually amounts to costly roaming charges.
So, users going to Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and the United States can log on to the assigned local networks and use their phones as if they are in Singapore.
This is the first time such an offer has been on the table here. Coming after telcos here followed each other to slash the amount of bundled data in recent years, this is an unexpected piece of good news for consumers.
StarHub, too, rolled out a new bundle of services for families last Friday, though it may be less straightforward than M1’s.
The green camp’s new HomeHub Go lets loyal customers who sign up for bundles of pay-TV, fibre broadband and home phone services get an improved deal for mobile services.
Committing to a such a bundle gives them more mobile data when they sign up for a phone subscription. They get 7GB on the go – generous by today’s standard – when they sign up for each S$60-a-month mobile line.
On its own, a S$62.90-a-month service on StarHub will get you only 4GB of data, albeit with more SMSes and calls, which many users don’t prioritise highly today.
The two plans from the incumbents are signs that the market is moving, perhaps in response to what’s to come.
While M1 and StarHub would probably say they were in the works for a while now, it has been known that the government has welcomed the entrance of a fourth telco to inject more intense competition after a slowdown in recent years.
The biggest player in town – Singtel – had also earlier rolled out Wi-Fi-based plans to offload some of the congestion on its mobile network. Like its rivals today, it has been busy upgrading its networks.
Revving things up isn’t something alien to these players. In the past decade, they have ramped up when the iPhone came to town and also when number portability was introduced to let users switch operators more easily.
Things also won’t be as easy for the new operator, as when M1 and StarHub entered the fray in the 1990s.
When M1 came to town with its cellphone services, it broke Singtel’s monopoly to offer users a younger, newer alternative.
Though StarHub entered later and missed the “low-hanging fruit” that M1 had grabbed earlier, it won users over with innovative features like per-second billing (sadly discontinued now) and free incoming calls. It also used its pay-TV monopoly to hook up “triple play” customers.
Now, years later, the fourth telco will have to innovate yet again, but in a much more saturated market, if it enters the fray by 2018.
It can drop prices but will have to expect the incumbents with deeper pockets to follow suit. It has to find a niche, and fast.