The NUS’ participation in Bitnet in 1987 put Singapore on the international networking map. In 1990, the NUS was again a trailblazer when it established its - and Singapore’s - first link to the Internet. The following year, the Internet would reach many more here.
This was when the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) set up a nationwide computer network called Technet. Aimed at the R&D community and academic institutions, and operated by the NUS, the network connected institutions to each other and the Internet. Technet became, in effect, Singapore’s first Internet Service Provider (ISP). It would later be bought by Sembawang Media to give birth to Pacific Internet.
When the Technet unit at NUS found a glitch in its system that stumped its developers in July 1994, all it took was 45 minutes for 16-year-old Maynard Kang to find a fix for it. Mr Kang was then in the gifted programme at Raffles Institution and had worked at Technet unit during the school holidays helping with technical support and programming.
By the early 1990s, there was a realisation that rapid technology advances would soon spawn new types of telecom services. It would lead to users developing sophisticated and diversified needs. It would also change the economy of the telecom industry in a big way.
“No one, I think, truly anticipated that the Internet would take off. Neither did anyone really expect that cellular services would grow so rapidly and become so pervasive,” recounted Koh Boon Hwee, SingTel’s chairman from 1986 to 2001, in the IDA publication The Amazing Journey, Innovation: 25 years Of Infocomm In Singapore.
“The fact that the price of handsets, which I would call the stumbling blocks to subscription, could drop as rapidly as it did, created a mass market overnight,” he said.
Deregulation was the new thinking. New technologies were making it cheaper to provide telecom services, obviating the traditional argument that a monopolistic approach is the best one for the market due to the huge infrastructure investment needed. Furthermore, a single incumbent was seen as unlikely to be able to fulfill the full range of needs of an increasingly diversified market. Ultimately, competition would benefit consumers and encourage new businesses.
In April 1992, Singapore took its first steps towards telecom deregulation with the corporatisation of Singapore Telecom, which was officially known as the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS). Up until then, the TAS was responsible for telecom regulations, network operations and services. With corporatisation, the commercial functions of TAS were hived off to form the new Singapore Telecom and Singapore Post, leaving TAS with solely the regulatory role.
No one, I think, truly anticipated that the Internet would take off. Neither did anyone really expect that cellular services would grow so rapidly and become so pervasive.Koh Boon Hwee, SingTel’s chairman from 1986 to 2001
The corporatisation of the TAS marked the dawn of Singapore’s new telecom landscape. SingTel’s monopoly on basic telecom services came to an end in 2000. Singapore’s Telecom Act would be amended to allow TAS to not just regulate, but also liberalise the telecom industry. New ISPs and mobile phone service operators subsequently appeared on the scene.
The new competitive market led to many consumer-friendly developments, such as a drop in IDD rates and rounds of mobile service price wars. Mobile phone take-up soared as a result. In January, 1992, the mobile phone penetration rate here was 13.6 per cent. By 2006, it had crossed the 100 per cent mark.
The liberalisation of the ISP market drove up PC ownership. In 1996, 36 per cent of Singapore households had computers. In 2005, the figure was 74 per cent. Last year, the figure was 86 per cent.
Singapore’s first Internet access service for the public was launched by SingTel in July 1994. Called SingNet, it offered access to the Internet, an e-mail service, and a collection of Internet news articles known as UseNet News.
Service charges included a monthly subscription fee of $35 for 10 off-peak hours. SingNet arrived at a time of surging Internet awareness and interest here. In 1994, The Straits Times published about 200 news reports related to the Internet. This figure would swell by five times in the following year.
Better voice clarity and protection from call snooping were among the benefits touted with SingTel’s digital mobile phone service, when it was launched in 1994.
Based on the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) technology that was popularised in Europe, SingTel’s service also allowed subscribers to send and receive short messages in text form, as well as use their mobile phones in Norway and Hong Kong via a roaming service.
Subscribers were also promised future developments like mobile data. SingTel’s GSM service was an instant hit. Over 13,000 GSM mobile phones were sold in the first five weeks of launch - nearly three times the number of mobile phones which local dealers were selling in an average month.
Having bought the government-funded Technet for $2.5 million, Sembawang Corp’s Pacific Internet (PacNet) became Singapore’s second ISP in September 1995. PacNet’s packages at launch included an eye-catching unlimited Internet access plan for $100 per month, which upped the ante for SingNet’s closest offering that was priced at $240 per month for 120 hours of off-peak usage.
It spelled good news for local Internet users, who could now compare and choose between the two ISPs. But perhaps the most significant aspect of PacNet’s debut was that it represented a breath of fresh air in Singapore’s telecom landscape.
Cyberway, a 50-50 joint venture of SPH Multimedia and ST Telecommunications, became Singapore’s third ISP in March 1996.
Its guarantee to connect subscribers to the Internet within 10 minutes of application helped it outbid five other groups to win the operating license from TAS.
Cyberway’s arrival sparked the expected price and marketing jousts with SingTel and PacNet. Within a day of its launch, both rivals announced they would unveil new schemes.
By May 1996, SingNet had about 27,000 dial-up subscribers, while PacNet had 21,000. Cyberway declined then to release its latest subscriber base but said that in its first week of operations in March that year, more than 1,000 users signed up. (ST, May 10, 1996, Pg 70)
In June 1997, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong officially launched the Singapore One pilot network. A month later, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the Buona Vista Singapore One Club, which brought the first public access of this network to a community club. By October, the new network was home to over 80 new software applications. The pilot of Singapore’s first national broadband network was off to a good start.
The network was commercially launched the following year, in June 1998.
Singapore One was an effort to link all of Singapore - homes, offices and schools - via a high-speed data network. It would deliver fast Internet access, be filled with interesting multimedia content, and spawn useful services. The project received $200 million from the Government, which went towards subsidising broadband subscription rates.
The Singapore One consortium of TAS, NCB, then-SBA (Singapore Broadcasting Authority), NSTB and EDB (Economic Development Board) had an ambitious plan. Linking up the island was only the first step. With broadband access in place, a vibrant market of content and service was expected to emerge and cater to business, recreational and educational needs.
“Singapore would be amongst the first few countries in the world with such an advanced digital infrastructure, complementing the excellent physical infrastructure,” said Stephen Yeo, then chief executive of NCB, in the IDA publication The Amazing Journey, Innovation: 25 years Of Infocomm In Singapore.
There were two main ways for the public to connect to Singapore One. The first was using SingTel’s ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) service, which used ordinary phone lines to deliver speeds of up to 5.5Mbps. The second was through Singapore CableVision’s (SCV) cable modem service, which offered a top speed of 10Mbps. Both connection schemes were a huge leap from the dial-up access method. For instance, SingTel’s ADSL service was about 100 to 200 times faster than normal dial-up modem connections.
In terms of being a catalyst for public broadband adoption, Singapore One got off to a slow start. A year after its commercial launch, there were around 10,000 broadband users in Singapore. But the project would pave the way for the excellent broadband infrastructure and high broadband usage rate that Singapore has today. In January this year, US Internet specialist Akamai Technologies ranked Singapore 10th fastest in the world in average broadband connection speed. Last year, 87 per cent of households here have broadband access.
Singapore would be amongst the first few countries in the world with such an advanced digital infrastructure, complementing the excellent physical infrastructure,Stephen Yeo, then chief executive of National Computer Board
Only one month after its debut in April 1997, MobileOne (M1) was able to grab 10 per cent of the mobile phone market - or 35,000 subscribers.
Singapore’s second mobile operator achieved the feat by offering packages with better value - it edged SingTel on off-peak hours and free air time - and by just being an alternative to the incumbent.
M1’s entry fed a market hungry for mobile phone services. A year after its launch, there were 848,600 mobile phone lines in Singapore, up from the figure of 431,000 a year earlier.
In December 1999, the Government announced the formation of a new statutory body. The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), formed with the merger of TAS and NCB, would be steering Singapore’s information and communications technology (ICT) adoption and its ICT sector into the new millennium. Among IDA’s many functions were developing Singapore’s ICT market, making ICT readily available to all Singaporeans, as well as licensing and regulatory responsibilities.
At IDA’s launch, CEO Yong Ying-I declared IDA’s goal to make Singapore the largest information and communications hub in Asia. It also wants to get Singapore companies and Singaporeans to be online-enabled, not just IT-enabled.
“Our direction is to dotcom the three Ps here - the private sector as Singapore business online, the public sector as Singapore Government online, and the people sector as Singaporeans online,” she said.
IDA’s first priority was to pen down the ICT21 masterplan, which had three key thrusts. They were: To develop Singapore’s ICT sector, tap ICT to boost key economic sectors, and prepare Singapore for the future information society.
The establishment of IDA came at a time when the global and Singapore’s technology landscapes were undergoing significant changes. This is because IT was giving way to the concept of ICT, which highlights the convergence of telecoms, computers and content.
Under IDA’s watch, Singapore’s ICT adoption and industry continued on their growth trajectories. Total infocomm industry revenue grew from $74 billion in 2008, to $167 billion last year. Broadband penetration in Singapore’s households was 45 per cent in 2004. It was 87 per cent last year.
1999 was the height of the global dotcom boom. It was also when new ISP StarHub Internet blew the local Internet access market open with the first free-surfing Internet plan.
The plan did away with registration and monthly subscription fees - users only needed to pay for local telephone charges. StarHub Internet was formed following StarHub’s acquisition of Cyberway earlier in the year.